This luxurious-yet-easy tomato pesto recipe draws from two classic Italian recipes: pesto alla trapanese and pasta alla puttanesca. It’s mouthwateringly savory thanks to a few key umami workhorses, but using fresh tomatoes instead of canned or sun dried tomatoes keeps this red pesto vibrant and alive. It’s perfect for coating long twirly noodles like spaghetti, but I also love using it to dress up store-bought (or homemade) ravioli. It also makes a great schmear for crostini!
The idea for this recipe has its roots in two specific (and classic) Italian dishes: pasta alla puttanesca and pesto alla trapanese. The first is pasta dressed in a big and bold tomato sauce packed with anchovies, capers, and garlic. The second is a Sicilian tomato pesto rosso of peeled tomatoes, blanched almonds, basil, and cheese. My recipe borrows a bit from both. It’s a very smooth tomato-almond-cheese pesto with the extra umami of anchovies, but without herbs. It’s savory and nutty, with a luscious, lightly smoky backbone that comes from skillet-charring the tomatoes.
- Food Lingo Lesson: a ragù is a type of sugo, but not every sugo is a ragù. "Ragù" is essentially a "sugo di carne," a meat sauce. Capito? Va bene, but let's add another twist: sugo and salsa both mean sauce, but sugo can also mean juice (sugo di frutta) or gravy, while a salsa would never be a gravy and is more likely to be uncooked. Don't worry, even Pellegrino Artusi seemed a bit confused about it, especially when it came to tomato sauces.
When making a super-simple recipe, it's not just important to choose good ingredients. It's also important to treat them in a way that will coax out all of their best characteristics!
Fresh tomatoes are juicy and bright, and when they are in their peak season they can also be deeply savory. If your tomatoes are a bit ho-hum, one easy way to deepen their flavor is to give them a quick blister in a skillet. Letting them lightly char caramelizes some of their sugars, but not all, so you get a bit of roasted goodness without sacrificing their freshness.
Toasted Slivered Almonds
Classic pesto alla trapanese uses blanched, untoasted almonds. They add texture and a bit of richness from their natural fats, but not much nutty aroma. Toasting your almonds first wakes them up, and for this pesto that toasty nuttiness is key. When it mingles with the savoriness of the blistered tomatoes and the nutty-umami of the cheese...heavenly!
Anchovies & Parmesan Cheese
You've heard it before, I'm sure. Even if you're not a fan of small "fishy fish," don't be afraid of the anchovies in this recipe. They really do melt away, leaving a wonderfully complex and meaty umami foundation for the savory-sweet tomatoes and almonds to build upon.
The Parmesan adds saltiness along with its natural umami, and it has an inherently nutty quality that positively sings when paired with the toasted almonds.
Extra-Virgin Olive oil
This is one of those typical "use good quality oil!" recipes. You will absolutely taste the oil in a pesto this simple, so make sure you use one that you actually like. I usually prefer oils that are more grassy and herbal than fruity. I find "fruity" oils to be heavier and more overpowering. Overall, my opinion is that "cheap" oils are flavor bullies, while a better quality oil will play more nicely with the other ingredients in this tomato pesto.
Expert Tips and Tricks
- Parmesan vs Pecorino Romano: You can use Pecorino instead of Parm in this tomato pesto, just keep in mind that some pecorino (like pecorino romano) is very, very salty. You might need a bit less than what's called for.
- Grape Tomatoes vs Heirloom Tomatoes: Grape tomatoes tend to have a reliably good quality year-round, while any kind of larger tomato becomes pitiful and mealy in the winter. If you have great looking heirlooms use them! You may want to be more methodical when you char, since smaller tomatoes have more surface area for developing char. Just take care to get good char color on as many sides of your tomato as possible. Also, remember that if you use heirlooms that aren't red, your pesto won't end up being a red pesto.
What to Avoid
- Don't use Parmesan from a can: It may be convenient, but freshly grated Parm is the way to go here. The longer Parmesan sits pre-grated the more it loses flavor. And that's especially true for the imitation Parm found in those tall green cylinders!
Why this Recipe Works
- Amping up Umami: Charring tomatoes concentrates their natural flavors and caramelizes their natural sugars. Both of those changes boosts their natural savoriness. Anchovies and Parmesan are also natural sources of glutamates, the amino acid that we know as umami, so your result is super savory and delicious.
If you really can't stand olive oil, I recommend either using less (start with 2 tablespoons) so that the other ingredients stay dominant and cover over the oil flavor, or use a light neutral oil instead. You can also use the oil from your anchovy tin, as recommended below, and depending on the size of your tin that might be all you need!
You can omit the anchovies, but you might need more cheese to make up for the loss of their natural savoriness.
Yes!! If your grill grates are too far apart for grape or cherry tomatoes, use a grill basket or put your skillet right on your grill grate. Either method will impart an extra bit of smokiness that will work so, so well in this pesto.
Looking for more pasta recipes? Give these a glance!
Recipe: Blistered Tomato Pesto with Toasted Almonds and Anchovies
- 4 tablespoons toasted slivered almonds
- 1 cup cherry or grape tomatoes
- 1 garlic clove, unpeeled
- ¼ cup finely grated Parmesan
- 2 anchovy fillets, blotted dry, Optional: Reserve the anchovy oil
- 2 to 4 tablespoons light bodied extra virgin olive oil
- ½ teaspoon white sugar, Optional
- Step 1Preheat a medium cast iron skillet or heavy stainless steel skillet over medium heat. If you haven't toasted your almonds yet, toast them in the preheated skillet, stirring occasionally, until lightly browned all over, 2 to 3 minutes. Remove from the skillet and set aside.
- Step 2Evenly distribute the tomatoes in an even layer in the preheated skillet and nestle in the unpeeled garlic clove. Let cook, without disturbing, until the bottoms of all the tomatoes and the garlic have blistered and charred, 3 to 5 minutes. Flip the tomatoes by giving the pan a shake to roll the tomatoes around, then continue cooking until the other sides of the tomatoes have begun to blister and char, another 2 to 3 minutes. Pluck out the garlic and set aside to cool. Transfer the tomatoes to a bowl or plate to cool. Be careful not to smash the tomatoes in transfer, or you risk losing their juices to the hot skillet.
- Step 3While the tomatoes cool, add the almonds to the bowl of a small food processor and pulse until finely chopped, about 15 1-second pulses.
- Step 4Once the garlic has cooled, peel it and add to the food processor with the almonds. Add the tomatoes and anchovies, then process until the mixture is fairly well combined and no large chunks remain.
- Step 5Add the cheese, reserved anchovy oil (if using) and 2 tablespoons olive oil to the mixture. Process until it becomes a thick, smooth, light orange paste. Add the remaining olive oil as needed. Taste and add the sugar if the tomato flavor needs a boost. Adjust seasoning with salt and pepper.
- To ServeOff heat, toss with al dente pasta or cooked ravioli. Add a splash of pasta cooking water and mix until the pesto is your preferred saucy texture. Taste and do a final seasoning adjustment with salt, pepper, and olive oil. Serve immediately.
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