Disclaimer: Lots of words. Sorry. 🙈
This is one of those recipes that just excites the heck out of me. And it's not just because it's a new pasta (which also happens to be off-the-charts delicious in every way), but it's also because this pesto, steeped in Calabrian tradition and ever so tasty, challenged me to tinker and tweak and fix what felt like openings to boost the flavors even more. This is when cooking gets interesting and sometimes magically delicious things happen.
My first encounter with pesto calabrese intrigued me because of the premise... a pesto made of sweet red peppers, spicy peppers, fresh ricotta cheese and basil. It sounded divine, but several of the recipes I found asked us to boil the peppers which didn't seem like the best way to extract their flavors, which set me off experimenting and testing, and eventually we were happily swooning over one of the best bowls of pasta in recent memory. I'll tell you how I got there in a minute.
A bit of back story reveals that this is a pesto sauce indigenous to the Calabria region of Southern Italy. This particular region happens to be the perfect climate for growing peppers and chiles, and they're well-known for their goat and sheep's milk cheeses including ricotta and pecorino. All of which make an appearance in this dish. How very Italian.
And speaking of Italian, can we talk about ricotta cheese for a moment? I have so many opinions on this topic, and will try to be brief. 👏 (well, doesn't look like brevity is one of my life skills. Sorry)...
So here's the thing, real deal ricotta, as you know is a by-product of making other cheeses like mozzarella. It's "re-cooked" from the whey of those other cheeses which gives it a specifically wonderful flavor and texture. Most domestic ricottas in the U.S. are not made from whey, but by introducing a culture to milk, separating the whey from the curds, which eventually becomes ricotta. Unfortunately, they also introduce stabilizers, preservatives, thickeners and all kinds of other things that take said ricotta even further from the real deal.
Given the state of supermarket ricotta, I've taken to making my own and published my long version recipe here and super quick and easy version here. Both come out delicious and creamy and wondrous. That said, I recently read an article over on the Cook's Illustrated website in which they compared supermarket ricottas (there are, of course, artisan cheesemakers around the country making superb ricotta, not to mention imported Italian ricotta if you're lucky enough to find it), and I was interested to read that there is one readily available domestic ricotta made in the traditional manner from the whey of mozzarella cheese, that being from Bel Gioioso. They extolled the virtues of its flavor and texture, so, of course, I had to try it. And dang, if they weren't right. This is the only store-bought ricotta that comes even close to homemade, which I'll probably continue to make. But if you're disinclined to make your own, I encourage you to find Bel Gioioso's. It's pretty wonderful stuff...pure, natural ricotta cheese and just what you want for this pesto sauce. OK then, back to this beautiful pesto...
So, yes, I did change things up a bit from what I gathered was a fairly traditional recipe. My spin on this pesto doesn't veer too far from tradition, but instead of boiling the peppers, I roasted them and subbed out the plum tomato for the sun-dried variety, which I assume they have in abundance in Calabria. Another component of this pesto is a pepper spread indigenous to Calabria called "bomba calabrese", which, of course, I haven't found here in the midwest. But I did have some harissa, which is a spicy pepper spread from North Africa, just a boat ride across the Mediterranean from Calabria, so I thought that it could be a fitting substitute and I wasn't wrong. It was dynamite. And once I added some fresh basil, a little garlic and red wine vinegar and tossed it with some gamelli pasta and pecorino cheese we found ourselves right there in home run territory. So good. It was creamy, spicy, a bit sweet from the peppers with a nice bit of acidity and salty from the pecorino cheese.
And as good as this pasta is, I encourage you not to limit this pesto to just pasta. Nope, it's just too good for that. We've had it on crostini, topped with a sprinkling of ricotta salata and herbs (as depicted above). It's awesome on pizza (topped with Italian sausage and fresh basil), and it makes a lovely sauce over chicken and fish, and divine drizzled over grilled cauliflower. Alrighty then, that should keep you busy for awhile. I'm off to try it on some scrambled eggs. Here's the recipe...
Pasta with Pesto Calabrese
I researched several Calabrian pesto recipes and created my own version, taking the best from each. I knew I wanted to roast my peppers (rather than boil or steam them) and we loved the depth of flavor roasting gave to the sauce. After grilling the peppers, you needn't peel them (we loved the charred bits in the sauce), but depending on how charred your peppers are, you can choose to keep the skin or peel them as you like. You will end up with more sauce than you’ll need for 1 lb of pasta, but it freezes well and can also be used to top chicken, grilled fish, pizza or crostini.
3 red bell peppers, halved and seeded
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1 small onion, chopped
1 teaspoon garlic, minced (1-2 cloves)
½ teaspoon red pepper flakes
2 tablespoons Harissa (*see note)
1 1/2 ounces sun-dried tomatoes
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1/4 cup water
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 cup chopped fresh basil
1 cup whole-milk ricotta cheese
¼ cup grated pecorino cheese (or parmesan), plus extra for serving
2 1/2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
2 teaspoons salt
1 pound short cut pasta like penne, cavatappi, rigatoni, farfalle, gamelli, campanile
Extra grated parmesan cheese and chopped fresh basil for serving.
* Harissa is a North African chili paste similar to the Calabrian chili paste traditionally used in this pesto. It's a great sub in if you don't have the Calabrian version
To roast the peppers:
You can either roast the peppers over the flame of a gas stove, under a broiler or on an outdoor grill set to high heat. (If doing this on a gas stove, I use a small barbecue grill set over the grate so I don’t have to watch them so closely). It should take about 15-20 minutes to totally roast/grill the peppers. Once blackened, place them in a bowl, cover with plastic wrap and let them steam until soft. When cool enough to handle, slice and set aside.
Put a large pot of water on to boil and add 3-4 tablespoons of kosher salt to the water. Bring to a boil and then add the pasta. Cook for the lowest recommended time on the package. Drain and reserve a cup of the cooking water.
Meanwhile, heat a large skillet over medium-high heat, add 1 tablespoon of olive oil, and saute the chopped onion until soft. Add the garlic, crushed red pepper flakes, sundried tomatoes, harissa, tomato paste and water. Stir and bring to a simmer. Cook for 3-4 minutes and then remove from the heat and let cool a bit.
Place everything (except the pasta) into the bowl of a blender or food processor and process until it creates a smooth paste. Taste for salt and add more harissa or red pepper flakes depending on your preferred heat levels.
Place about half of the sauce in the skillet used previously and set over low heat. Stir in the cooked pasta, adding more sauce as needed to just lightly coat the pasta. Add the pasta cooking water as needed to thin the sauce and coat nicely. Serve warm topped with additional grated pecorino and chopped fresh basil, if desired.