My grandparents had several very productive walnut trees in their garden, so we always seemed to have an unlimited supply when I was a kid, which we in large brown grocery bags stored at the very backs of cupboards to keep them cool and dark. We mostly ate them raw or baked with them (I still prefer walnuts to pecans in most sweets), but lately I’ve come to enjoy them in savory dishes too, like Feta and Walnut Dip and Muhammara.
In this Italian-inspired dish from A16 (one of my favorite restaurants in San Francisco) the walnuts are blanched and pureed into a “crema.” The texture is luxurious and the flavor is rich, but there is no butter or cream in this sauce –just some olive oil and an onion. It’s a wonderful complement to the fresh flavor and light crunch of roasted asparagus, and shavings of aged Pecorino cheese (Pecorino Tartufo studded with black truffle shavings is amazing if you can find it) give the dish a lovely tangy finish. It’s a delicious way to celebrate Spring.
It’s also a pretty efficient way to put something very special on your table. The dish has very few ingredients, and, except for the Pecorino Tartufo (a good Pecorino Romano is an excellent substitute), all relatively inexpensive and easy to find, particularly when asparagus is in season.
The walnut crema can also serve double duty as the sauce for a luxurious pasta dish, which is excellent before a main course of grilled or roasted beef, lamb or pork, or served with a simple green salad for a special lunch. (Julia still doesn’t care much for asparagus, but Hoovers up this pasta like her life depended on it.) You could make a batch of the crema and use half for asparagus one day, store the balance in the fridge and wow your family and friends with a pasta follow-up a day or two later.
(Adapted from A16: Food + Wine by Nate Appleman, Shelly Lindgren & Kate Leahy. Serves 8.)
For the Walnut Crema
1 1/2 cups (350 ml) shelled walnuts
1/2 cup (120 ml) plus 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1 small red onion, diced
For the Roasted Asparagus
3 bunches of asparagus
kosher or coarse sea salt
Pecorino Tartufo (A wonderful aged cheese studded with black truffle shavings. It’s expensive, but a little goes a long way. If you can’t find it –or if you don’t care for truffles– Pecorino Romano is also delicious in this dish.)
About 3/4 cup (175 ml) shelled walnuts
For Spaghetti with Pecorino and Walnut Crema
1/2 recipe Walnut Crema (see above)
About 1/2 cup (120 ml) chopped Italian Parsley
1 pound (.5 kg) spaghetti
About 1 cup (240 ml) grated Pecorino Tartufo (or Pecorino Romano), or to taste
About 1/4 cup (60 ml) roasted walnuts (see above), coarsely chopped
1. Preheat oven to 500F (260C).
2. Bring a medium pot of salted water to the boil and then add the nuts. Blanch until the nuts are tender in the middle, about 10-12 minutes. Reserve about 1/4 cup of the cooking water, drain the nuts and set them aside.
3. While the nuts are blanching, warm about 1 tablespoon of olive oil over medium heat in a saute pan or skillet. Add the onion and a generous pinch of salt. Saute until tender and golden, about 8-10 minutes.
4. Put the blanched nuts, onion and reserved cooking liquid food into a food processor fitted with the blade attachment. Process until smooth (this can take a few minutes) and then, with the motor running, add the remaining 1/2 cup (120 ml) oil in a slow, steady stream and process the mixture until creamy. The sauce should be the consistency of creamy hummus. If it’s too thick (like peanut butter), add a bit of water and process again.
5. Lightly coat two baking sheets with olive oil. Trim off the tough ends of the asparagus and place the spears on the baking sheets in a single layer. Season with salt and then roll the spears in the oiled pan to coat them evenly.
6. Roast the asparagus in the 500F oven until they are starting to blister and char and yield easily to the point of a knife, about 8 minutes.
7. Turn off the oven. Spread the walnut pieces on another baking sheet and roast them in the still-hot oven until they are lightly browned and fragrant, about 5 minutes. (Watch them closely.) Remove to a small bowl and toss with a drizzle of olive oil and a generous pinch of kosher or sea salt.
8. To assemble the dish, spread a thick layer of the walnut crema on a platter. Pile on the roasted asparagus, and top with generous shavings of Pecorino, the nuts and a good drizzle of olive oil. Serve warm or at room temperature to impressed and grateful guests.
To Make the Spaghetti (to serve four) . . . .
1. Bring a large pot of salted water to the boil.
2. Add a pound (.5 kg) of spaghetti and cook until el dente.
3. Reserve about a half cup (120 ml) of the pasta water and then drain the pasta.
4. Dump the pasta into a large warmed bowl and then quickly stir in the walnut crema. Add pasta water –a tablespoon or two at a time– and toss until the sauce is silky smooth and evenly coats the pasta. (It shouldn’t be sticky and cause the strands of pasta to glom together.) Then toss in the parsley and about 2/3 of the grated Pecorino. Taste and season with ground black pepper and salt if necessary. Garnish with the remaining Pecorino and the chopped walnuts and serve immediately.