Pasta with walnut sauce
In another of those birth-of-a-recipe sagas that involves searching the Web for ideas and passing recipes around in online forums, I took my turn the other night at a surprisingly simple dish that proved to be one of the best meatless pasta dishes I've tried.
The secret ingredient is walnuts, of all things, chopped into a crunchy walnut-butter puree with lots of garlic, a little seasoning, a dash of olive oil, a squirt of citrus and a splash of hot pasta water to make it creamy. The result was a surprisingly "meaty" dish that made a fine (and wine-friendly) light meal that needed nothing more than a salad to make it complete. With a lot of nuts and a little oil, it was hardly a low-fat dinner; but then, neither is a steak or a pork chop.
Credit for conceptualizing this recipe goes to Bernard Roth, an excellent cook and participant in our online Food Lovers' Discussion Group, who came up with the idea of nuts and pasta as a course in a special meal for guests.
Researching similar ideas, he found that pasta with walnuts is an old Piemontese (Northwestern Italian) combination; he found something similar in a cookbook by wine writer Matt Kramer, whose version included bread crumbs, a presumably traditional ingredient that seemed to add unnecessary weight to the dish.
Bernard's final version, posted on the forum to considerable applause, involved a two-stage process with a walnut "paste" made in advance, then turned into a finished sauce in a bowl with the hot pasta, extra-virgin olive oil and pasta water and a zingy addition of lemon zest.
My version collapsed the two steps into one to save a little time and effort, and I got the citric tang from a simple olive-oil-and-lime-juice vinaigrette in place of lemon zest. Small changes, not necessarily for the better or worse, but that's the way a recipe evolves, like a simple theme tossed from player to player in a jazz combo. If you make a similar dish and play a new riff of your own, I hope you'll let us know.
If you would like to read Bernard's original recipe and participate in the forum discussion of this dish, you'll find it here:
1/2 cup (120 grams) walnut pieces, bitter skins removed
1. To make the sauce, put the walnut pieces in your food processor bowl and process them with the garlic, using the steel blade, gradually adding a simple vinaigrette made by blending the olive oil and lime juice. Use your best extra-virgin olive oil for this dish, as its flavor should be a distinct player in the blend. Don't process it into creamy nut butter; you want to keep a crunchy texture. Add salt and pepper to taste and, if you wish, just a tiny ration of hot-pepper sauce to add a piquant note. Spoon this paste into a bowl large enough to hold the cooked pasta. (Bernard's version involves hand-mashing the paste using a mortar and pestle, a traditional approach that I admire in principle ... but I'll use the processor, thanks!)
2. Cook the spaghetti in the usual way, at a quick boil in a large amount of salted water until it's just al dente. Drain the pasta, but catch some of the hot water in a cup. Use it, a little at a time, to thin and warm the walnut paste in the bowl until it's creamy. Stir in the pasta, turning so every strand is covered, adding a little more pasta water if necessary to get the texture right. Put in serving bowls, top each with a little Parmigiano, and serve.
VARIATIONS: Bernard's recipe called for spaghetti alla chitarra, a shape so-called because, in the original, pasta dough was cut into narrow strands forced between parallel wires on an apparatus that reminded some jovial chef of guitar ("chittara") strings. The result is a long pasta that resembles spaghetti but is square in profile, not round, with textured edges that hold thick sauces nicely. He recommended Latini brand from A. G. Ferrari, a San Francisco Bay-area producer. A more widely available brand is Barilla. Of course the recipe will work with regular spaghetti, linguine or fettuccine, but try chitarra if you can find it ... if you agree that it's fun to try different pasta shapes and see how they work.
In discussions on our food forum, we came up with other variations on the nuts-and-pasta theme. Try it with hazelnuts in place of walnuts, for example. Or maybe toasted pine nuts. One rich and rather sweet-sounding version, from the archives of the public-radio cooking program "Splendid Table," features heavy cream and sweet Vin Santo and dashes of cinnamon and nutmeg. Another variation, proposed by our online friend Francesco, an Italian living in Holland, adds melted dolcelatte (mascarpone and gorgonzola) to the walnut paste plus fresh chopped chives. And in a moment of luxuriant whimsy, Bernard speculated about replacing his lemon-zest garnish with thin-sliced fresh white truffles ... now there's a seductive idea.
WINE MATCH: Bernard served his dish with Jermann 1998 Vintage Tunina, a classy Sauvignon Blanc-Chardonnay blend from Friuli-Venezia Giulia. My version, without the lemon zest, seemed to want a crisp and fruity red, and matched well with a couple of decidedly modest 2001 Chiantis.
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