A pesto from the New Mexican borderlands

This quick sauce indeed shares a lot in common with the Spanish romesco sauce

By Maggie Hennessy


Published October 29, 2022 4:31PM (EDT)

Red pepper pesto (Maggie Hennessy )
Red pepper pesto (Maggie Hennessy )

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. 

Red pepper pesto
2/3 cup
Prep Time
5 minutes
Cook Time
5 minutes


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



  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. Taste and adjust as needed with salt, vinegar or olive oil. Sprinkle with chopped parsley just before serving. 

By Maggie Hennessy

Maggie Hennessy is a Chicago-based freelance food and drink journalist and the restaurant critic for Time Out Chicago. Her work has appeared in such publications as the New York Times, Bon Appetit, Food & Wine, Taste, Eater and Food52.

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