Complex pepper flavor
I make pesto often, and for all the usual reasons: It’s simple and easy to prepare, it’s rich but fresh-tasting, and it can function not just as a pasta sauce but also as a vibrant dip, a dressing for meat or vegetables, or a sandwich spread. Like most cooks, I default to the familiar Genovese puree of basil, pine nuts, Parmesan, garlic, and olive oil. But almost every region of Italy lays claim to its own version, and I’m often tempted to branch out and try other styles—most recently, pesto alla calabrese. Calabria’s namesake sauce looks and tastes nothing like the raw Genovese puree for two key reasons: First, it trades the base of basil and nuts for the red bell peppers, creamy ricotta and tangy Parmesan cheeses, and hot chiles native to that part of southern Italy. Some versions also include tomato, onion or shallot, garlic, or basil. Second, at least some of the components are cooked, either before or after the mixture is pureed. The coral-colored sauce is lush and creamy, nicely balanced by a pepper flavor that’s at once sweet, fresh, and slightly spicy.
At least, it should be. But the consistencies and the flavors of the recipes I tried ranged dramatically—from dense and cloying (one taster compared it to pimento cheese) to sharp and vegetal. Surely a little kitchen work could lead me to a superior version.
Most recipes call for cooking the bell peppers, either by roasting or sautéing them (with the onion and tomato, if using) in strips so that they brown and sweeten or by steaming or blanching them so that the pieces soften somewhat but don’t brown. From there, it’s just a matter of blitzing the peppers with the cheeses and any other ingredients in the food processor and tossing the puree with hot pasta.
Usually I consider the rich browning and sweetness produced by roasting or sautéing a plus for peppers, but here their deeply cooked flavor was one-dimensional. Steaming or blanching them simply washed away their flavor; plus, they didn’t soften sufficiently, which made the pesto grainy. My best attempt was a hybrid method: starting the peppers in a covered skillet to soften them before finishing them with the lid off so that they developed some flavorful browning. I built in some complexity by adding onion, garlic, tomato, and basil during the uncovered cooking phase before pureeing the vegetables with the ricotta and Parmesan. The pesto still tasted a bit flat, but I hoped that the hot pepper component would add some fresh bite as well as heat.
And herein was the big problem: Calabrian chiles—variously sold fresh, packed in oil or brine, or as a paste—are the traditional heat source in this dish, but they aren’t readily available in domestic supermarkets. There wasn’t an obvious substitute. In their absence, most recipes call for hot pepper flakes—and while I found that ½ teaspoon or so gave the sauce just enough kick, they of course added none of the fruity bite of a fresh chile. For that, I had to circle back to the bell peppers: Adding one additional raw pepper to the food processor along with the cooked mixture and pepper flakes delivered the complex flavor I was after, and it did so without turning the sauce grainy.
Now to enrich the pepper puree with just enough cheese to make it creamy but not stodgy. Making a few more batches with varying amounts of cheese proved that it was easy to go overboard, and I eventually settled on just ¾ cup total, a 2:1 ratio of ricotta to Parmesan. Processing a couple of tablespoons of oil with the pesto made it a touch smoother, and I balanced the extra richness with a splash of white wine vinegar. Tossed with penne (the short tubes captured the sauce nicely), this pesto was rich, bright, and just a touch spicy—a nice change from better-known versions and just as satisfying.
Keys to Success
Complex pepper flavorA combination of raw and cooked bell peppers delivers sweet and savory flavors and fresh bite.
Accessible ingredientsDried red pepper flakes replace the heat traditionally contributed by hard-to-find Calabrian chiles.
Creamy—not stodgy—bodyA modest amount of ricotta and Parmesan cheeses adds rich flavor and texture without dulling the vegetables’ flavor.