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Pasta with Fresh Walnut Sauce
This is not New Year’s resolution food, at least not unless your goals for 2013 involve incorporating more carbohydrates and fat into your diet. But it’s February, so even setting aside my antagonism toward the whole concept of resolutions, you’ve all had over a month to compensate with whole grains, dark leafy greens, etc., in which case one rich pasta dish isn’t going to utterly corrupt you, or you’ve already fallen off the wagon and this bit of indulgence isn’t going to do any additional damage.

Beautifully silky, creamy and elegant, with the warmth of lightly toasted walnuts and the brightness of good extra-virgin olive oil, this walnut sauce is neither complicated nor time-consuming to prepare. However, there is one catch, and it’s critically important to heed it: you really do need to make this with the freshest, highest-quality walnuts, because it will make the difference between a sauce that’s luscious nutty perfection and one that’s flat and dull or, even worse, bitter or rancid.

My walnuts were backyard-grown, very recently harvested, and lovingly shipped to me from northern California by His Lordship’s cousin. The first time I made this, I did it on-site during a holiday visit with walnuts from the same source. If you’re not lucky enough to have a West Coast connection, either wait until locally-grown walnuts in season are available in your farmers market, or seek out the best vendor you can find, preferably get them still in the shell, and make sure to taste the nuts before trying this recipe. If they don’t taste fresh and mild and sweet, use them for a more forgiving sauce, like pesto.

Slight post-facto edit: A rousing discussion with my Facebook friends made me think of a possible alternative if you can’t get really good walnuts.  Pistachios still in the shell are readily available year-round just about everywhere, and would definitely work as an alternative.  It will taste and look quite different, of course, but it should still give you the nutty, creamy unctuousness that’s the heart of this sauce.  As a bonus, if you have children, it will be entertainingly green and you can tell them it will make them strong like The Hulk.
Walnut Sauce
Pasta with Fresh Walnut Sauce
(Mash-up of two recipes, one from Nigella Lawson’s Christmas Special, and one from Mark Bittman, How to Cook Everything Vegetarian)
Serves 4 as a main course, 6-8 as a side dish

1 slice bread, crusts removed
½ cup cream or whole milk
1 cup walnuts, as fresh as possible and preferably hand-shelled
2 cloves garlic, peeled
½ cup grated Parmesan cheese
Salt and freshly grated black pepper
½ cup extra-virgin olive oil
¼ cup Italian parsley, chopped
1 pound dried spaghetti rigate, fettucini, or other substantial ribbon pasta

Roughly tear up the bread and place it in a shallow bowl, pouring over the cream or milk. While it soaks, very carefully toast the walnuts in a dry pan over medium-low heat, tossing frequently to avoid burning, just until the nuts have barely started to turn golden and release a faint toasty aroma. Allow to cool briefly.

Place the nuts, garlic and cheese in a food processor and pulse a few times, until the nuts are broken up. Add the soaked bread and the liquid, with a hefty few pinches of salt and several grinds of pepper, and run the processor again until a paste forms. With the processor running, pour the olive oil down the feed tube and process just until you have a homogenous sauce that looks like a slightly grainy mayonnaise. Taste and correct the salt and pepper as necessary.

Boil the pasta in very well-salted water until al dente according to the package instructions. When you drain the pasta, reserve a good cup of the pasta water and set it aside. Toss the pasta with the sauce and the parsley, adding as much pasta water as needed to thin the sauce to a creamy consistency that evenly coats the pasta and allows the strands to caress each other instead of clumping. Serve immediately in warmed bowls.

Notes:

All resolution-bashing aside, there are some things you can do to lighten this up just a teeny bit, although it’s never going to be exactly what your doctor ordered. You can use low-fat milk instead of cream, whole wheat pasta and multigrain bread (provided it’s not too dense and chewy), and cut back a bit on the cheese, or you could serve smaller portions as a side dish beside a suitably healthy protein and a very large salad.

This would also work just fine as a vegan dish with non-dairy milk and omitting the cheese entirely, although in that case you’ll need to salt a little more aggressively, and you might want to toast the walnuts a tiny bit darker for added flavor. I’d also be tempted to add a very light grating of nutmeg for complexity.

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