The hallmark of pesto Genovese—and so many similar sauces—is its freshness. Basil, pine nuts, a bit of garlic and cheese. The ingredients are raw, the technique simple: bash together until chunky-smooth and pungently rich. Across Italy, the ingredients may get swapped, but the story is the same.
“The word ‘pesto,’ after all, just means something that’s pounded in a mortar,” says Mediterranean food expert Nancy Harmon Jenkins.
Or rather, we thought the story was the same. Until we encountered pesto Calabrese, a rosy-pink sauce that, unlike most pestos, calls for cooking the ingredients before grinding. The recipe comes from Calabria, the sunny tip of Italy’s boot, and features classic southern Italian staples: sautéed red bell peppers, tomatoes and hot peppers, all blended with fresh ricotta, hunks of salty aged cheese (classically pecorino, but often Parmesan) and sometimes almonds.
The result is both bold and balanced: creamy and rich from the dairy and nuts, yet fresh and light thanks to the peppers and tomatoes, which add sweet and savory notes. Cooking the vegetables concentrates their flavors, enhancing their sweetness. A bit of heat from the hot peppers (a typical Calabrian flourish) completes the recipe. “It definitely has a kick,” says Rosetta Costantino, author of the cookbook “My Calabria.”
At Milk Street, we loved the depth of flavor pesto Calabrese offers, but we also saw opportunities to streamline.
Foremost, we wanted to cut down on the time it took to cook the vegetables. We considered jarred red peppers, but found they lack the fresh, sweet vegetal notes we were after. Instead, skillet-charring fresh bell peppers that had been cut into strips gave us superior results with little effort. We also sautéed the garlic to mellow its bite. Opting for sun-dried tomatoes, however, was a shortcut to deeper, bolder flavors, allowing us to skip the traditional step of cooking down fresh tomatoes along with the bell peppers. And with our other flavors maximized, we found we could omit the onions altogether.
From there, the recipe came together quickly in the food processor. A finishing touch of peppery fresh basil leaves balanced the richness of the tomatoes and peppers.