Friday, August 15, 2014

Maccharruni con Pesto Trapanese (Sicily)

The wonderful thing about having my daughter visit is that we break out the cookbooks and start planning what we want to cook together within just a few hours of her arrival.  We have been talking about pasta and want to try making ravioli but our first foray together into my new kitchen was to make this Sicilian pesto sauce.  It is an interesting variation on what we know as a standard pesto.

It comes from what is becoming a favorite book, A Mediterranean Feast by Clifford A. Wright.  I find myself drawn to the simplicity of the recipes and how they are presented with the history of each area.  The types of ingredients appeal to me, too, as I love tomatoes, basil, lamb, mint, chicken, and fish.

ISBN 0-688-15305-4
On pages 468 - 469 he describes life in Sicily in the fourteenth, fifteenth, and sixteenth centuries.  Their cuisine focused on fresh vegetables and seafood, fava beans and chickpeas, eggs and cheese.  Almonds, olives, and bread were available.  Meat, though not common, increased in quantity over those centuries and included beef, castrato (castrated lamb), salt pork, and veal.  Mr. Wright speculates that tomatoes "probably came to Sicily between 1510 and 1540, when Sicily was under Spanish rule."

I have an abundance of basil both inside my kitchen and out on my patio and need to use it up.  The sauce in this recipe caught my attention because it is not your standard basil pesto recipe:  instead of Parmesan or Romano cheese and pine nuts, it uses almonds and fresh tomato puree.

Macaroni with Pesto in the Style of Trapani

1 pound macaroni
4 ounces blanched whole almonds
4 garlic cloves, peeled
1 small bunch fresh basil (40 to 50 large leaves), stems discarded
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 cup fresh tomato puree (not canned), without skins or seeds

And salt
1. Bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil, salt abundantly, and add the pasta.  Drain the pasta when al dente.

2. Meanwhile, grind the almonds, garlic, basil leaves, salt, and pepper together in a food processor.  Slowly add the olive oil in a thin stream through the feed tube while the machine is still running and process until smooth.  Transfer to a large bowl and stir in the tomato puree.  Toss the macaroni with the sauce and serve.

My Notes

I felt lazy and did not blanch the almonds.

My four garlic cloves consisted of two big ones and two medium-sized ones while the basil had a lot of small leaves so we used closer to 60 leaves.  I used about 1/2 teaspoon of pepper and less of salt.

The fresh tomatoes were peeled, cut in half length-wise, cored and seeded, then chopped into chunks to make them easier to process.

The puree was a pretty pink and the pesto mixture never got smooth really but the almonds were fine-textured.  Mixing the puree into the pesto lightened the entire mix.


Basil, garlic, almonds, salt, and pepper

With the olive oil added

The final sauce
The Verdict

We were both disappointed in the flavor of the pesto sauce.  It had mostly a garlic bite and we couldn't really get much basil or tomato flavor out of it.  The almonds added body to the whole thing and I liked that very much.

It is a good sauce for macaroni as it sticks to the pasta and coats it well.

I cannot call this a success but I strongly suspect the problem was with my ingredients.  I want to try this again with tomatoes that are mushy ripe, basil that is younger, and less garlic.  I also would add more salt and pepper.  I'm not sure if I would try blanching the almonds or not as I like how robust the unblanched ones made the sauce.

Mr. Wright's notes say, "Traditionally, cheese is not served with this dish."  We found that adding grated Parmesan cheese to our pasta at the table improved the flavor, which we probably would not want to do if the pesto was more flavorful.

One aspect my daughter pointed out was that the dish was visually very dull.  She wanted more color in it.  I wanted to add chunks of fresh, ripe tomatoes, too.

LATER:  While I was eating the leftovers I realized that the flavor was better (the garlic was not as pronounced and the almonds came through more) but what I really wanted with it was olive oil soaked, sun-dried tomatoes.  That would have made it more visually interesting and bumped up the excitement of the flavor.

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