Ligurian Pesto Tomato Sauce

One of the things I love best about Italian cooking is its simplicity. Few ingredients are used and they are the freshest and best available. Andy and I traveled around a bit in the region known as Liguria, a collection of towns that rests along the Mediterranean to the northwest. The region produces fruity olive that we enjoyed on salad, drizzled over slices of bread and in their very famous pesto. In just about any restaurant, you can find pasta with fresh pesto made from this oil. We also discovered another regional specialty – pesto mixed with a tomato sauce and tossed with fresh noodles. We had several variations of this sauce and I’ve done my best to replicate it here. I served it over fresh egg linguine, but in Italy we had it with fat ribbons of handmade pappardelle. One word: incredible.

  • Olive oil
  • 5 cloves garlic, divided
  • Kosher salt
  • 28 oz. can whole peeled San Marzano tomatoes
  • 2 tablespoons pine nuts
  • 1 cup packed basil leaves
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1/4 cup freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano
  • Freshly ground black pepper

  • In a large skillet, heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil over medium heat. Crush 2 garlic cloves with the flat side of a knife, then add them to the warm oil. Using the back of a spoon, continue to smash the garlic and swirl it around in the oil until fragrant and just starting to color slightly. Add the tomatoes and their juice to the skillet (the oil may sputter a bit, so stand back), using the back of the spoon to break up the tomatoes. Be careful because they tend to squirt when smashed. I find it helps to make a little hole with the side of the spoon, then press down gently until the juice has run out and the tomato is flattened. Turn the heat down to medium low and continue cooking for 30 minutes. Stir every once in a while and continue to break up the tomatoes as the liquid begins to cook down.
  • Meanwhile, add the remaining 3 garlic cloves to a mini food processor. Add 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt, then pulse a few times until the garlic is minced. Add the pine nuts and pulse again until finely ground. At this point, you may need to scrape down the sides of the bowl. Pack the basil leaves into the food processor, then run it until the basil is incorporated. With the machine still running, add the olive oil. Scrape down the sides of the bowl again and pulse one more time to make sure all ingredients are evenly incorporated. The pesto will be a thick, bright green paste.
  • Stir the pesto into the warm tomato sauce, which should be quite thick. Add the Parmigiano-Reggiano and a few cranks of black pepper, tossing until combined. Serve over fresh pasta. If desired garnish with more cheese and julienned basil.
  • Quick Tips
  • 1. No mini food processor? No problem. I’ve made a rustic pesto with a sharp knife and a cutting board. It’s a bit more effort but you can achieve the desired outcome. Start with the garlic and sprinkle it with salt. Mash it into a paste, then add the pine nuts. Use the knife to chop them finely, scraping together the nuts with the garlic and salt. Finely chop the basil, then smear into the garlic and pine nut paste. Add the entire mess to a small bowl and whisk in the olive oil slowly. Proceed as noted in the recipe.
  • 2. Seems silly to use canned tomatoes at the peak of tomato season, right? Probably. I may try this recipe again while tomatoes are plentiful and ripe. I liked the predictability of using canned tomatoes for this first try. I will update the recipe later if I have success using fresh tomatoes.
  • 3. Allow me to provide a quick refresher on how to combine fresh pasta with a skillet-made sauce. Cook the pasta to al dente. Remove about 1/2 cup of the starchy cooking water from the pot before draining. Toss the drained noodles with the sauce in the skillet, using the cooking water to help loosen and distribute the sauce. The best tool for this task is tongs, especially if you are using long noodles like linguine or fettuccine. Serve and enjoy.

Preparation time: 20 minute(s)

Cooking time: 35 minute(s)

Number of servings (yield): 4 (makes 2 cups of sauce)

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