This easy spicy sundried tomato and harissa pesto recipe has amazing flavor and a smoky twist, though you can control the heat and keep it as mild as you wish. Toss with pasta, gnocchi or veggies, or slot it into any recipe that calls for pesto.
After seeing a jar of harissa pesto in the supermarket, I couldn’t get it out of my head that harissa in pesto might be quite fabulous. But I decided to make it myself after noticing that the jarred ones were lacking in the nuts, cheese and fresh basil departments. I’m sure they’re tasty enough, but I wanted to do it my way, including all the usual Italian pesto rosso ingredients alongside the harissa. And it turned out AMAZING.
So this is a fairly classic sundried tomato basil recipe, but with the not-too-subtle addition of harissa paste to overlay some sweet smoky flavors and a kick of spice. The spice levels will depend on your choice of harissa and how hot it is, and you can adapt this to your own preference.
This comes together in no time at all, so if you’re planning to serve this with pasta you’ll have dinner in the table in around 20 minutes flat. But you can also use it in so many other ways. Lots of suggestions coming!
Ingredients for Harissa Pesto
- Harissa paste. You can use a plain, rose or smoked harissa – whatever you like best – but take a note of the spice levels. I use the Al’fez brand and mine is medium spiced. Two tablespoons in this pesto gives us a nice kick but it’s not so spicy that the heat overpowers. If yours is labelled as hot, try it with one tablespoon initially, taste it, and then decide whether to add the rest.
- Sundried tomatoes. I like to buy sundried tomatoes that are NOT soaked in flavored oil for this recipe, just because it gives me full control of the flavors in the pesto. If yours are soaked in oil, I would just suggest draining and patting them dry before adding them to the blender.
- Pine nuts. I tested this with walnuts as an alternative and that worked OK, but I do prefer the classic pine nut for this recipe. I am sure cashews would work well too.
- Basil: One bunch of basil is about right for this, but add more if you have it to use up, it can take whatever you want to throw at it. You can also feel free to include other herbs such as cilantro (coriander), mint or parsley as well.
- Hard cheese: I used pecorino, but any kind of Italian hard cheese along the lines of parmesan, pecorino or asiago will work. (Just watch out for animal rennet if you need this to be suitable for vegetarians.)
- Lemon. We’ll use the juice. A lime should be fine to swap in if you need to.
- Garlic. Don’t stress if you don’t have any. I forgot the garlic when I was testing this once and it was still awesome (the harissa is already garlicky).
- Extra virgin olive oil. I suggest around 4 tablespoons for a really thick, chunky pesto but you can add more if you want a thinner and oilier sauce.
You will love how this pesto adds a little unexpected twist to whatever meal you slot it into.
My favorite way to serve it is simply tossed into pasta or gnocchi with fresh mozzarella balls or burrata on top – there is something about the spicy pesto and the creaminess of those cheeses which makes them perfect together!
Any of these dishes would also be fantastic with harissa pesto recipe swapped in:
Spicy Harissa Pesto
- 2 tbsp harissa paste
- 4 tbsp pine nuts
- 1 lemon, juiced
- ½ cup (50 g) pecorino
- 1 bunch basil
- 1 clove garlic
- ½ cup (60 g) sundried tomatoes, if yours are soaked in oil, pat them dry
- 4 tbsp olive oil, you'll need a little more if your sundried tomatoes aren't oily
- Lightly toast the pine nuts in a dry frying pan over a low heat. Move them around frequently to get them toasted on multiple sides, but watch them closely to avoid burning. I can almost guarantee that if you walk away, they will burn 😜.
- Add the nuts, lemon juice, cheese, basil, garlic and sundried tomatoes to a small food processor bowl. Pulse until everything is breaking up, and then add the harissa paste and olive oil and blend steadily until the pesto has come together with just a little bit of texture remaining. Give it a try and add some salt if you think it needs any.
- Serve immediately, tossed into pasta, or store in the fridge for around 5 days. When storing, cover with a thin layer of oil to help keep the pesto fresh.