Busiate al Pesto Trapanese
When a Sicilian friend Gabriella Becchina took me a couple of years ago to Mulini del Ponte, a grist mill in the heart of Castelvetrano, her hometown in southwestern Sicily, I was captivated first by the massive granite mill wheels that grind the grain and then by the grains themselves, ancient varieties of wheat that are slowly ground into deeply aromatic flours.
The fragrance alone was enough to make the baker in me crave a chance to get my hands in the dough.
Mulini del Ponte makes flour only from these ancient grains, all organically raised, and almost all durum wheat, the type of wheat prized for making the best pasta. Tumminia (pronounced Too-min-EE-yah) is one of those grains and it’s particularly beloved here in this region where a local specialty, recognized with its own Slow Food presidium, is pane nero di Castelvetrano, “black” bread, meaning actually a rather dun-colored bread made with the whole grains of this local heritage wheat.
Best of all, I spotted in the mill’s salesroom, sacks of pasta including another local specialty, busiate. This is a curious curled pasta shape that seem to be local to western Sicily although the redoubtable Oretta Zanini says busiate can also be found in some parts of Sardinia. But you’re unlikely to find them on the pasta shelves of your local supermarket, in Italy or in the U.S.
And busiate, I had learned years earlier, are the quintessential shape for pesto trapanese, a favorite pasta sauce from Trapani. In North America we tend to think pesto means the delicious genovese sauce made with lots of fresh basil and pine nuts. But here is another version—and yet I don’t want to say that. Pesto trapanese is not at all “a version” of pesto genovese. It is its own thing and as valued a tradition in western Sicily as pesto genovese is in Liguria. In fact, these pounded nut sauces are ancient and ubiquitous right around the Mediterranean, from Aleppo, where spicy mhammara, made with crushed walnuts, is queen of the table, to Catalonia where aromatic romesco, with almonds and hazelnuts, rules. Pesto, after all, simply means “pounded.”
But pesto trapanese, I had learned many years earlier, really requires busiate to be the genuine article—although quite honestly you could probably be happy serving it up on fusilli or gemelle or any other type of short, curly pasta. So of course I was happy to learn that gustiamo.com is now importing busiate, and not just any busiate but precisely those great tasty busiate from Mulini del Drago, made from organically raised, whole-grain, hard durum tumminia wheat.
The following recipe is based on what Chef Pino Maggiore makes at his Cantina Siciliana in Trapani. Pino adds grated pecorino from Sicily but the flavor, for me, is purer without the added cheese. For the same reason, I prefer to top the pasta with breadcrumbs crisply toasted in olive oil rather than grated cheese.
The pesto is even more delicious if you can use Sicilian almonds from Noto (also available from gustiamo.com) with their strong, almost pungent flavor, so different from blandly sweet California almonds. The almonds should be blanched and, even though traditional recipes don’t call for this, I think they are better if they’re toasted in an oven set at 350ºF for 15 or 20 minutes or until they are lightly golden. Some cooks use canned tomatoes but I prefer fresh, even when they’re not exactly in season. If you do use canned tomatoes, be sure to drain them very well, otherwise your pesto will be too soggy.
Note too that in Trapani this is sometimes called agghiata trapanisa, or agliata trapanese—meaning Trapani garlic sauce. It should be heavily redolent of garlic, then of the almonds, finally of the basil; the tomatoes simply help, along with the olive oil, to turn it into a sauce.
- 3 or 4 ripe tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and chopped
- Sea salt
- ¾ cup blanched almonds, lightly toasted in the oven (see above)
- 1 cup large fresh basil leaves, torn into smaller pieces
- Freshly ground black pepper
- Crumbled dried red chili pepper (optional)
- About ¾ cup extra-virgin olive oil, preferably Sicilian
- 3 garlic cloves, coarsely chopped
- 1 pound (approximately 500 grams) busiate
- 3 tablespoons dry, unflavored bread crumbs
Chop the tomatoes very fine, almost to a pulp, and combine with a full teaspoon of sea salt. Set the tomatoes in a fine-mesh sieve to drain as much of their liquid as possible. (Save the liquid and toss it into any broth, ragu, or tomato sauce.)
Chop the almonds as fine as you can manage, then transfer to the bowl of a food processor. Process in spurts to make a fine, grainy almond paste. Add the basil, black pepper, and red pepper if using and pulse to mix all together to a deep green sauce.
Set aside 2 tablespoons of olive oil to use for frying the breadcrumbs.
With the processor running, add about half a cup of olive oil in a thin but steady stream, as if you were making mayonnaise. Taste at this point, remembering that you will be adding salt later with the tomatoes. If you think it’s necessary, add a little more oil, but the sauce should not be notably oily.
When the sauce is just right, add the chopped garlic and process once more. (Why not just put everything together in the processor bowl? Garlic, if it’s overly worked, can become bitter—so I do this in stages, adding the garlic only for the last quick processing.) Transfer the almond sauce to a bowl and combine with the tomatoes. Taste and add more salt if necessary. (Note that both the pesto and the tomatoes may be prepared well ahead but they should be combined only at the last minute before serving.)
Bring about 4 quarts of water to a rolling boil.
While the water is coming to a boil, toast the breadcrumbs in the reserved olive oil in a skillet over medium heat, stirring frequently until the crumbs are brown and crisp. Remove from the heat and immediately transfer to a small bowl. (If left in the skillet, the crumbs will continue to brown, perhaps even to burn.)
When the water boils, add a big spoonful of salt. Tip in the pasta and cook according to package directions, about 10 minutes. Remove about a cup of pasta water and set aside to be used to thin the sauce if necessary. Add a big spoonful of pesto to the bottom of a warmed serving bowl. Drain the pasta and transfer it to the bowl, then add most of the rest of the pesto, reserving a little for a garnish on top. Toss the pasta with the pesto until it is well coated. If necessary, add a spoonful or two or the pasta water. Top with the reserved pesto, sprinkle with the crisp breadcrumbs, and serve immediately.