What separates the treatment of pesto in the UK from its birthplace in Italy, more often than not comes down to the time it takes to prepare rather than its cost. Though it’s a classic sauce adored worldwide, its convenience tends to overshadow how flavoursome it really is.
While simplicity and ease are both legitimate reasons to love pesto, these merely scratch the surface. Gourmet pesto can also revolutionise your pasta game. Pasta Evangelists recommend “pairing pesto with a pasta that has curls, grooves or dimples, such as trofie or orecchiette, as these deftly capture the flavoursome sauce. Alternatively, ribbons of tagliatelle capture pesto with ease, due to their increased surface area”.
Along with its reliance on fresh ingredients, pesto is a premium example of scratch cooking, which allows for opportunity to experiment in the kitchen. In this article, we’ve compiled some ways to elevate your favourite dishes: go beyond basil, while staying true to its cherished tradition. So, if you find yourself wanting to rejuvenate your love for this vintage salsa della mamma, explore these variations inspired by the most accomplished pasta crafters we know, easily cooked at home.
Corzetti with Creamy Walnut Pesto
It is deliciously fitting that Italy’s national colour palette is identical to its pesto categories. In the tricolour flag, white symbolises faith, which is encouraging because this tempting variation is something of a dark horse in the familia pesto. The complete opposite of a classic pesto alla Genovese, this white pesto recipe is only slightly less modest with its ingredients: toasted walnuts and pine nuts, Parmigiano, potent garlic, and some marjoram or sage.
This mix works well with some fresh rigatoni, but the more adventurous coin-like corzetti parcels make a wonderfully delicate union with the sauce. Don’t forget to bring some extra Parmigiano to the table for scattering over.
- 150g walnut halves
- 25g pine nuts
- 1 garlic clove, peeled
- 1 handful fresh marjoram (or sage)
- 4 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
- 100ml whole milk
- 100g Parmigiano Reggiano
- 125ml white wine
- 1 handful of stale breadcrumbs
- 1 pinch salt
- 350g corzetti
- In a pestle and mortar, grind together the oil, breadcrumbs, pine nuts, cheese, garlic, salt and your herbs. Once a rough paste has formed, add the walnut halves. Alternatively, you can use a food processor.
- Meanwhile, heat ¾ of the milk before incorporating the pesto — the rest can be saved for later when refining the sauce. Stir well until combined.
- To make sure the sauce is nice and creamy, thicken with any extra milk by eye — you want it to coat the pasta.
- Boil the corzetti in well-salted water until al-dente, then drain.
- Add your cooked pasta to the pesto mixture and combine well.
- Garnish with a couple of sage leaves, and serve hot — preferably with some fresh black pepper and finely grated Parmigiano.
Stracci with Pesto di Pistacchio
Our pesto recipe with a Sicilian pistachio twist blends handsomely with Stracci — these are pasta sheets deliberately cut up uneven. This shape originally hails from Italy’s Lazio region, historically poor despite being the home of Rome, perhaps explaining its literal translation as ‘rags’ or ‘tatters’.
Pesto di Pistacchio, faithful to this humble Genovese heritage, is made all the better by Stracci’s ease and plainness. Simply splitting pasta sheets into these jagged squares helps exploit the fragrant and intense flavour of the nut. For the sauce, again, we prefer using a pestle and mortar to grind the pesto carefully and precisely compared to a food processor.
- 75g fresh basil, chopped
- 25g fresh coriander, chopped
- 100g pistachios, shelled and dry-roasted
- 2 garlic cloves
- 4 tbsp olive oil
- 1 tsp lemon zest
- 100g Parmigiano Reggiano
- 200g Stracci sheets
- Prepare the pesto by combining garlic cloves, pistachios, oil, lemon zest, basil and coriander into a pestle and mortar, or a food processor if you’re short on time.
- Grind/blend until nice and chunky, adding more oil if needed.
- Meanwhile, cook the Stracci in generously salted water until al-dente (it will cook more later). Drain, but leave ¼ of the pasta water aside in a small jug or cup.
- Combine the pasta with the sauce in a pan, adding pasta water to slacken the pesto and make sure it’s evenly coated.
- Serve hot with rocket garnish and a drizzle of oil.
Tagliatelle with Sicilian Almond and Tomato Pesto (‘Pesto Alla Trapanese’)
It may surprise you to learn that despite the ancient competition between red and green pesto (at home and in Italy), this dish is only a slight — but fundamental — twist on the ‘original’ pesto that gave birth to Sicily’s enchanting, creamier and spicier alternative. The story tells of a simple adjustment to Genoa’s pesto ‘Agliata’ (garlic and walnuts) made by Sicilians in the west coast port city of Trapani, having encountered ship passengers docking from Genoa.
Incorporating the region’s flourishing native ingredients, namely tomatoes and almonds, the Trapanese created a suave, authentic rival sauce for their Genovese counterparts. This, likewise, can move from scratch to plate in 45 minutes, but there’s no rush — the process is best at a gentle pace.
- 25g shelled almonds (unskinned)
- 3 vine tomatoes, roughly chopped
- A handful fresh basil leaves
- 2 cloves garlic
- 2 tbsp Pecorino cheese, finely grated
- 6 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
- 200g Tagliatelle (can substitute for Pappardelle or Fettuccini)
- Soak almonds in boiling water for 3-4 minutes to loosen skins. Cool with cold water and lightly peel off.
- Toast almonds in a non-stick pan, stirring regularly for five minutes or so until they turn a light gold colour.
- In a processor or pestle and mortar, grind/blend basil, garlic and coarse salt. Transfer into a large bowl. Then finely grind/pulse almonds using salt.
- Peel, deseed and chop tomatoes. Combine with almonds and basil/garlic base, adding Pecorino and olive oil. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
- Boil pasta al-dente in generously salted water. Drain, but reserve 100ml or so of pasta water.
- Add pasta to the bowl with pesto and combine swiftly so as to evenly melt the cheese. Incorporate pasta water if needed to thicken the sauce.
- Serve hot!