Of all the different types of nuts available to us, my very favourite are walnuts. The fruit of the walnut tree, walnuts are widely available and relatively inexpensive when compared to other nuts such as macadamia nuts. They’re good for you too. Walnuts are among the nuts that are highest in monounsaturated fat … that’s the "good fat" in case you’re into labelling fat as "good" or "bad".
While I appreciate the health benefits that walnuts may offer, for me, it’s all about the taste. I love the buttery quality of walnuts. I love the texture of a walnut half both in my hand and in my mouth. One of my favourite ways to end a meal is with fresh walnuts in the shell and dried figs. In fact many Italian tables, at the end of a heavy meal, will feature this combination alongside a bowl of fruit and a tray of cheese. But I would have to say that my very favourite way of enjoying walnuts is with pasta.
That’s right … pasta with walnuts!
If you’ve never heard of or tried this combination, I highly recommend it. Popular throughout Italy where walnuts are cultivated (i.e., Liguria, Campania), walnut sauce is luscious and rich. While there are many variations of this sauce, my favourite version involves butter and olive oil to start, followed by the addition of cream and finely chopped walnuts, and is finished off with parmigiano. Some cooks will use herbs such as sage or basil in their sauce, but I prefer mine with a sprinkling of parsley.
Easy-to-make, this sauce leaves you with the satisfied feeling in the belly that you want from a pasta dish in winter. It may pack a few extra calories because of the cream, but it’s worth it. The cream, in this case half-and-half cream, compliments the walnuts so well. Half-and-half cream is usually 10 to 12 per cent milk fat. It’s a mixture of equal parts milk and cream.
As for the pasta, I like to use conchiglie when I make this dish, partly because the recipe it’s based on uses conchiglie and partly because the conchiglie are the perfect little receptacles for the sauce. Conchiglie (which means shells in Italian), is a type of pasta shaped like a shell or conch. It is the perfect type of pasta to use with a creamy sauce because it holds the sauce very well. If you cannot find conchiglie, use a short, tubular pasta like penne or rigatoni, which will also trap the sauce.
There’s not much more that I can write about walnut sauce. With every bite your mouth receives a little gift of cream and nuts and parsley. It’s a combination that I cannot resist.
I hope that you will find it just as irresistible.
Conchiglie con Salsa di Noci (Pasta Shells with Walnut Sauce)
Adapted from Truly Madly Pasta by Ursula Ferrigno.
- 12 ounces (three-quarters of a pound) dried conchiglie pasta
- 1/2 cup walnuts, finely chopped (do not use a food processor as it may overprocess the nuts causing them to become oily and pasty)
- 1 cup light cream
- 2 cloves garlic, finely chopped (use less if you’re not a garlic lover)
- 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1/2 cup grated parmigiano
- salt and pepper to taste
- 2 tablespoons parsley, finely chopped
- Put a large pot of water to boil.
- As you wait for the water to come to a boil, in a bowl, stir together the walnuts, cream and garlic.
- Once the water is boiling, add salt and then add the conchiglie. Cook according to package directions.
- In a pan large enough to accommodate the pasta, heat the olive oil gently over a low flame. Add the butter. Once the butter has melted, add the walnut/cream mixture.
- Raise the heat to medium-high and let the mixture come to a boil. Boil, stirring often, until the mixture thickens (about 3 to 4 minutes).
- Once the mixture has thickened, adjust the heat to low and then add half the parmesan and half the parsley and mix well. Keep stirring the sauce, on low heat, until the pasta is done cooking.
- As soon as the pasta is ready, drain it (reserving some of the cooking liquid) and add the conchiglie to the sauce. Add the remaining parmesan and stir well. If the pasta sauce is too thick, add some of the reserved cooking liquid. If the pasta sauce is too liquidy, add some more parmesan and keep stirring until you have a sauce of creamy consistency.
- Turn the heat off and and plate the pasta, sprinkling the remainder of the parsley on each serving.
Note: This recipe serves 4. The facts on walnuts for this post are from The New Food Lover’s Companion.