Red Pesto with Pasta

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Red pesto? Yes, it’s a thing. Red pesto is a variation on pesto alla Trapanese, from Trapani, in Sicily. It is as wonderful as it looks, and is versatile in the kitchen.

Made in much the same way as a green pesto, red pesto gets its color from sun-dried tomatoes and roasted red peppers, plus the normal pesto ingredients of cheese, pine nuts and an herb, in this case fresh oregano. But there are lots of variations, as I’ll show you below.

A bowl of pasta dressed with red pesto
Photo by Holly A. Heyser

For starters, know that it is very difficult to pound sun-dried tomatoes into a pesto, unless you first chop them and they started soft to begin with. I say this because red pesto, like any pesto, really ought to be pounded in a mortar and pestle. Pesto is, by definition, a pounded sauce, after all.

That said, you can use a food processor, which is what I do for the sun-dried tomatoes. Once they are ground into a paste, you can then move everything to a mortar to pound it all out, or just toss everything in the food processor and have done with it.

I do both, depending on my mood and how authentic I want to be. Let’s just say that if I were serving red pesto to Sicilians, I’d pound it.

One word of caution: Do not use a blender, as it will make the sauce too smooth. A fully blended red pesto is a lot like romesco sauce, which is great, but not what we are looking for here. What it is very close to is red chimichurri from Argentina, which is related to pesto alla Trapanese.

Your ground sun-dried tomatoes should look like this:

Ground sun dried tomatoes in a bowl
Photo by Hank Shaw

My red pesto recipe runs like this:

  • Buzz sun dried tomatoes packed in olive oil (I make my own), until they form a coarse paste. Then either add the other ingredients to the food processor, or move to the mortar. I’ll get to that in a moment.
  • Assuming you’re opting for the easy way and sticking with the food processor, toast some pine nuts for a few minutes in a dry pan, keeping an eye on them so they don’t burn. Then grind them into the mix.
  • Roughly chop some garlic and roasted red peppers and pulse into the paste.
  • Add the fresh oregano, grated pecorino cheese and some black pepper and smoked salt, and pulse to combine.

Now, you can alter the basic recipe wildly.

  • You can use fresh basil, parsley or even mint.
  • Roasted red Hatch or red Anaheim chiles add just enough heat to make things interesting. Or you can skip red peppers and use red pepper flakes.
  • The smoked salt adds a nice touch.
  • Any hard cheese will do, too. Parmigiano-Reggiano is also traditional.
  • Almonds are actually traditional in pesto alla Trapanese, so you can use them, or you can use walnuts for your red pesto.
  • Zest and a little juice from a lemon are not normal, but they sure taste good.

If you want to go super traditional and use the mortar and pestle, or a Mexican molcajete, this is the order you want: A pinch of salt with the garlic first, pound that to a paste. Add the nuts and pound them, then pre-chopped sun-dried tomatoes. Then the soft things, like the red peppers, oregano, cheese and black pepper. Olive oil at the end.

Closeup of red pesto with pasta in a bowl
Photo by Holly A. Heyser

My advice is to use the olive oil the sun-dried tomatoes came in, as it will have more flavor. How much? Up to you. Oil will bind the sauce, and then loosen it depending on how much you use. You want it looser when you want your red pesto to coat pasta.

Red pesto pasta is how I served it in the pictures, and it’s really delicious this way. I hand made pasta with some emmer semolina here, and yes, I know that’s esoteric. Any pasta you like will do, although I am partial to heavier shapes with red pesto, like your typical short pastas, or a thicker long pasta like spaghetti.

(Like this pesto? I also have great recipes for walnut parsley pesto, arugula pesto, ramp pesto and even pesto made with nettles.)

That said, red pesto is amazing with fish, it is a fantastic salad dressing once thinned down, is great to coat white meat poultry like chicken, turkey or quail, as well as rabbit. Toss some with grilled or steamed shrimp, or grilled vegetables. I could go on.

Once made, your pesto will keep a week or more in the fridge, and it freezes well.

A bowl of pasta dressed with red pesto
5 from 10 votes

Red Pesto

This is how I like to make red pesto. See the headnotes for various ways to tinker with this recipe to suit your tastes.
Course: Condiment, Sauce
Cuisine: Italian
Servings: 10 servings
Author: Hank Shaw
Prep Time: 30 minutes
Cook Time: 0 minutes
Total Time: 30 minutes

Ingredients 

  • 2 ounces pine nuts (see headnotes for alternatives)
  • 4 ounces sun dried tomatoes, packed in oil
  • 4 ounces roasted red peppers
  • 2 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 1/4 cup fresh oregano (see headnotes for alternatives)
  • 1 cup finely grated pecorino (about 1.75 ounces)
  • 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • Black pepper and salt to taste
  • Zest and juice of a lemon (optional)

Instructions 

  • Toast the pine nuts in a pan over medium-high heat, tossing them often, until they just barely get a little browning and smell nice. Remove from the pan and let cool. You'd do this same step if you used other nuts, too.
  • Chop the tomatoes in a food processor until they form a coarse paste. Scrape down the sides of the processor, then add the pine nuts, red peppers, garlic and oregano. Buzz to combine. You want a coarse paste, not a puree.
  • Add the cheese and pulse to combine. With the motor running, slowly pour in the olive oil until combined. Hand stir in any salt, pepper or lemon you want to use. Ditto for any extra olive oil.
  • Store in glass jars in the fridge, or freeze until you need it.

Notes

Variations

  • You can use as your herb fresh basil, parsley or even mint.
  • Roasted red Hatch or red Anaheim chiles add just enough heat to make things interesting. Or you can skip red peppers and use red pepper flakes.
  • The smoked salt adds a nice touch.
  • Any hard cheese will do, too. Parmigiano-Reggiano is also traditional.
  • Almonds are actually traditional in pesto alla Trapanese, so you can use them, or you can use walnuts for your red pesto.
  • Zest and a little juice from a lemon are not normal, but they sure taste good.

Nutrition

Calories: 208kcal | Carbohydrates: 9g | Protein: 6g | Fat: 18g | Saturated Fat: 4g | Cholesterol: 10mg | Sodium: 304mg | Potassium: 465mg | Fiber: 2g | Sugar: 5g | Vitamin A: 222IU | Vitamin C: 10mg | Calcium: 145mg | Iron: 2mg

Nutrition information is automatically calculated, so should only be used as an approximation.

Tried this recipe? Tag me today!Mention @huntgathercook or tag #hankshaw!

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About Hank Shaw

Hey there. Welcome to Hunter Angler Gardener Cook, the internet’s largest source of recipes and know-how for wild foods. I am a chef, author, and yes, hunter, angler, gardener, forager and cook. Follow me on Instagram and on Facebook.

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6 Comments

  1. I used to make something close to this, but this is so much better. Served it with some crumbled hot sausage & artichokes which worked really well with the sundried tomato. The oil from Sun-dried tomato oil is so damn tasty is must. I love using that oil.

  2. Honestly it’s a winner. Easy, economical, and quick to prepare.
    Only mistake I made was saying “I really like garlic so I’ll double the garlic” it has enough garlic in the recipe as written.

  3. I made this a couple of nights ago and served it over warmed spiralized zucchini and it was so good! Of course this would work with pasta, but it really would lend itself as a dip for veggies as an appetizer or a spread on toasts, but we are going to try it on pizza in the pizza oven this week with some fresh arugula thrown on after it comes out of the oven. Thanks for sharing a great recipe.

  4. super good. un colpo di genio Hank.Thanks.We use everywere. Also super good is black olives pesto.

  5. Great post Hank! I love me some Sicilian food. Glad to see you mentioned the almonds too as that’s how I was taught to make this one. Black walnuts would be super good too. Side note, another fun sauce Sicilian sauce to make is Salmoriglio, the herb and citrus zest sauce traditionally made with seawater. I learned to make it from a chef from Milan-I’ve done a version with Monarda fistulosa for years. https://foragerchef.com/bergamot-salmoriglio-sauce/

  6. Thanks for the great recipes!

    Any chance you could also add in metric weights, volumes and temperatures in the ingredients list and instructions so Europeans can understand?