Pesto-sized quotas of fresh basil are often hard to come by at the grocery store near my house in the New Mexican borderlands. Nor have I had much luck growing it, thanks to a pair of acrobatic resident squirrels with a similar penchant for its sweet perfume. Fortunately for you, I'm not here to discuss my mediocre gardening. Instead, I want to share a blistered pepper pesto that's become my favorite when I can't get my hands on a heap of basil, or when I simply want to switch things up.
I'll begin by roasting a bell pepper (any color besides green, which I find too grassy and bitter for this application). Then I'll whiz it up in the food processor with toasted almonds, a fat garlic clove, a whisper each of sherry vinegar and tomato paste and a generous glug of olive oil.
Do its component parts ring a bell? This quick sauce indeed shares a lot in common with the Spanish sauce romesco. Hailing from Tarragona, a Catalonian city just south of Barcelona on Spain's northeastern coast, romesco traditionally comprises almonds or hazelnuts, tomatoes, dried peppers, garlic and bread blitzed to a paste with olive oil and vinegar.
This pesto-like iteration still delivers depth and tang, but is lighter, brighter and a little sweeter, thanks to the soft, char-speckled pepper. The combination of almonds and silky olive oil lends a lovely rich mouthfeel that sends it over the top.
As you might imagine, the possibilities are endless with this sauce — as a dip alongside crackers, olives and cheese; smeared onto a meaty, veg or egg sandwich; tossed with pasta or roasted vegetables (both finished with a spritz of lemon, please!); or served with roasted or grilled fish, meat or fowl. As a general rule in life, you're off to a good start meal-wise if you have homemade pesto on hand.
I guess I have those enterprising squirrels to thank.
1 red bell pepper
1 garlic clove, smashed
¼ cup slivered almonds, dry toasted in a skillet until lightly browned
½ tsp tomato paste
½ tsp sherry vinegar
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
Small pinch red pepper flakes
Fresh parsley, chopped, for garnish
- Roast the pepper directly on the gas burner (or under the broiler if your stove is electric), turning often until it is blistered black on all sides.
- Zip the pepper in a bag for 15 or 20 minutes, then peel off most of the skin with a cloth or paper towel before seeding and roughly chopping it.
- Add the pepper, smashed garlic, almonds, tomato paste and sherry vinegar to a food processor or blender. Process it for 30 seconds, until coarsely chopped. Add the olive oil, ½ tsp salt and a dash of red pepper flakes. Blitz again for about a minute, until combined and lightly coarse.
- Taste and adjust as needed with salt, vinegar or olive oil. Sprinkle with chopped parsley just before serving.