We owe today’s Sicilian Cherry Tomato & Almond Pesto with Couscous the Italian city of Trapani, on Sicily’s westernmost tip. It has an identity all of its own. That’s because geographically speaking it is closer both in distance and topography to Tunis than Naples. In fact it’s closer to several African ports than it is to any part of mainland Italy.
It owes much of its heritage to the sea and its importance to the ancient trade routes. Trapani flourished as the center of Phoenician trading because it was a navigationally necessary port during the Middle Ages. Without Trapani, links between Tunis, Naples, Anjou and Aragon may have been impossible at that time. These facts helped Sicily’s food to develop separately and distinctly from the rest of Italy. It’s a hot, dry, predominately flat landscape. It seems more reminiscent of North Africa than most parts of Italy, and that is another determinate factor in its culinary past.
So it’s no wonder that the foods we associate with North Africa have gained a footing in Sicily’s culture.
The most obvious example of a North African food that has found its way to Sicily is couscous. In today’s recipe for Sicilian Cherry Tomato & Almond Pesto with Couscous. I chose a whole-wheat “pearl” variety of couscous from Bob’s Red Mill. Andrew of Eating Rules fame gave me a sample when we were both at Camp Blogaway. I have been hoarding it away ever since this past spring. I knew it deserved some very special attention. So I pulled it out for this Sicilian specialty.
Almonds are another rather frequent visitor to the cooking of Trapani (and Sicily in general). They grow all over the place. It’s not unusual to see almond trees growing in the wild right alongside other trees, like date and citrus. All of which found their way there on ancient trading ships and have established themselves quite nicely.
My favorite of the Sicilian almond centric recipes is the Trapanese version of pesto. I am sure the Genovese might argue with the term pesto, as this sauce is not green at all. It’s a rustic mix of chopped almonds, garlic, basil and fresh, cherry tomatoes. There is often a bit of heat to the recipe in the form of red-pepper. Like a more traditional pesto this version is pounded together in a mortar and pestle before being tossed with good local pasta.
I also suggest you make and serve yours with a nice sized fistful of grated pecorino or something similar. Again, my research seems to indicate that Parmagiano-Reggiano and Grana Padano are the cheeses of choice for this pesto (at least in America). But I say take your orders from the geography of Italy and use a cheese more likely to be found in the southern villages around Trapani, such as caciocavallo or Pecorino Siciliano. Of course, Pecorino Romano is an easy to find substitute in most countries outside Italy and is the cheese I chose.
I asked my brother Grant to do a wine pairing for us on this one. It was a bit of a challenge for him because I requested a red wine. Grant informed me that there were some very good, very traditional white wines that would work wonderfully well with this dish. I could see that was the direction he preferred to go.
But I was serving this couscous as a main course in a casual dinner. It was preceded by a simply flavored fish course paired with a white wine. The menu was already in place. I couldn’t change it. Besides, I don’t consider it a dinner party unless we have served a red wine! So despite the difficulties associated with almonds Grant put his thinking cap on and came up with a red wine whose tannins would not clash with those in the almonds. His choice was a winner. Cusumano Nero D’Avalo. GREG
- 1 lb small cherry tomatoes
- 1/2 c almonds, lightly toasted, plus more for garnish
- 1/4 c pecorino romano, plus more for passing
- 1 t peeled and minced garlic
- 15 large basil leaves, roughly chopped, plus more as garnish
- 1/2 t crushed red pepper
- 1/4 c plus 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 c israeli couscous
- 1 1/4 c water
Set aside 12 of the nicest looking cherry tomatoes. Cut the remaining tomatoes into quarters.
Put the almonds in the bowl of a food processor fitted with the blade attachment, pulse them 15 or 20 times until roughly chopped. Add the quartered tomatoes, Parmesan, garlic, basil, and red pepper flakes. Pulse the machine 8 or 10 times. Then, with the machine running, use the feed tube to slowly add up to 1/4 cup olive oil in a slow steady stream. The resulting pesto should be quite grainy but not too chunky and not too wet. You may not need all the oil. Set aside.
Heat the remaining 2 tablespoon olive oil in a saucepan set over high heat. Add the couscous, and cook, stirring often until toasted, about 5 minutes. Add the water, cover the pan and lower to heat. Simmer 20 minutes until all the water has been absorbed. Fluff with a fork and toss 1irg 1 1/4 cups of the tomato pesto. Garnish with remaining whole (or halved) tomatoes, chopped almonds, basil and pecorino Romano.
Greg Henry writes the food blog Sippity Sup- Serious Fun Food, and contributes the Friday column on entertaining forThe Back Burner at Key Ingredient. He’s active in the food blogging community, and a popular speaker at IFBC, Food Buzz Festival and Camp Blogaway. He’s led cooking demonstrations in Panama & Costa Rica, and has traveled as far and wide as Norway to promote culinary travel. He’s been featured in Food & Wine Magazine, Los Angeles Times, More Magazine, The Today Show Online and Saveur’s Best of the Web. Greg also co-hosts The Table Set podcast which can be downloaded on iTunes or atHomefries Podcast Network.