THE ART OF ITALIAN DINING
Just nuts. Crazy good. That is, if you like walnuts.
This is one of my to go recipes. One of those that you prepare, serve and listen at your guests making noises of appreciation throughout the whole meal. The secret?
Walnuts and marjoram. That’s all my friend and it couldn’t get any easier. Add a bit of ricotta and parmesan cheese, extra virgin olive oil (italian only..), black pepper, salt, some garlic and PRONTO! You have THE sauce.
Walnuts are believed to be indigenous to Persia, but the Romans cultivated them and brought them to Europe, where they were highly revered. My ‘Salsa di Noci’ (walnut sauce) recipe hails from Liguria, the region in northwestern Italy. High above the Mediterranean, shielded by mountains, Liguria is a fertile region, making a name for itself with its famous pesto sauce (from basil) and focaccia bread. The thick, creamy walnut sauce is often associated with the region’s most famous city, Genoa, and the herb-laden hills to its north. This recipe has become an elusive classic for its rich simplicity and limited presence on menus, but never under appreciated when served.
This recipe for Salsa di Noci is often called Pesto di Noci (Walnut Pesto), but I don’t like to call things “pesto” if the recipe calls for cream and Ricotta (and I prefer walnut sauce with a little cream). Therefore, you can always try this without the cream, as it is often prepared in Liguria, or for a slightly different taste, you can substitute some of the cream with mascarpone.
If you want to go non-dairy, add more olive oil when mixing the walnuts, and be sure to reserve the cooking water, as described below. Either way, I think this is one sauce that requires experimentation in order for you to find the best match for you. In Italy, this sauce is often served with trennette (which is essentially linguine in Liguria) or with ravioli filled with greens such as kale, called ‘Pansotti’.
Though basil may be the most familiar to Americans, there are more than 70 different recipes for pesto from the province of Genoa alone, including a winter version, which calls for parsley instead of basil, as well as chard and borage. Some recipes call for Parmigiano-Reggiano, while others call for Sardinian Pecorino. Pesto is popular in southern Italy, too. In Trapani and Pantelleria, they make it with garlic and basil but enrich it with tomatoes, almonds and Pecorino, or mint, oregano and dried chile pepper.
When making pesto, use a quality but less robust olive oil so it doesn’t overpower the other ingredients. And for best results, make it the old fashioned way, with a mortar and pestle. The pounding together of ingredients (as opposed to pureeing them in the food processor) creates more flavors.
This uncooked dressing, enriched with ricotta and marjoram, is delicious and quite different from the herb-based pestos I’ve found in other regions. You can blend it together in a bowl while the pasta water is heating up and have a distinctive pasta appetizer or main course in minutes. To retain its vibrant, fresh flavors, it is important not to cook the pesto, just toss it with the pasta and serve
Oh, I forgot. Prepare this wonderful sauce in a food processor but then transfer it in a beautiful wood mortar and pretend you have made it by hand.
Your guests will love it even more…
Buon Appetito Amici!
SALSA DI NOCI
Ligurian Walnut Sauce
1 cup walnut pieces
1 cup (1/2-inch) cubes day-old rustic bread
Coarse sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper
1 garlic clove,
1/3 cup plus 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 cup fresh ricotta cheese
1/3 cup Parmesan Cheese
A generous amount of fresh Marjoram
1/4 cup of heavy cream (or Greek Yogurt)
1 batch Pansotti (recipe below) or store-bought vegetable and cheese ravioli or dried pasta
STEP 1: In a kitchen blender, combine nuts, the bread that you have previously soaked in milk and then drained, 3/4 teaspoon salt, pepper, parmesan cheese and the fresh marjoram. Add garlic and grind until mixture is smooth and almost becoming a paste but not too fine. Working with 1 to 2 tablespoons at a time, drizzle in all but about 2 tablespoons of the oil, grinding and mixing to incorporate as you go. Once the mixture is grinded, transfer in a bowl and add the ricotta cheese mixing well. Then add the cream and remaining oil. Mix well until sauce is combined. Taste and adjust seasoning if needed. Do not worry if the sauce looks thick. You will use the boiling pasta water when mixing it with the ravioli to get the sauce creamy or you can always add a bit more cream to make it smoother.
STEP 2: Bring a large wide pot of salted water to a boil. Boil pansotti (see recipe below) in batches of 25 until tender, 3 to 4 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer to a colander to drain, then transfer to a large bowl; reserve 1/4 cup pasta cooking liquid. Once all of the pansotti are cooked, add sauce and pasta cooking liquid; gently toss to combine. Serve immediately with a generous serving of Parmesan cheese, fresh cracked pepper and a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil.
RICOTTA AND SWISS CHARD PANSOTTI
Makes 6 to 8 servings
1 pound Swiss chard, stems and center ribs reserved for another use and leaves coarsely chopped 1/3 cup finely chopped fresh basil leaves
1 garlic clove, thinly sliced
1 teaspoon fine sea salt
3/4 cup freshly grated Parmigiano- Reggiano cheese
3/4 cup fresh ricotta cheese
1 large egg
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
3 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons fine sea salt
1/4 cup dry white wine
1/3 to 1/2 cup water
1 large egg
FOR FILLING: Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add chard and cook for 3 minutes. Drain, then squeeze out all excess water. Finely chop together chard and basil. Mound garlic and salt on a cutting board. Using the blade and flat side of a chefs knife, chop and blend together garlic and salt to a paste. In a bowl, combine greens, garlic paste, Parmigiano-Reggiano, ricotta, egg and pepper. Cover bowl and set aside.
FOR DOUGH: In a large bowl, whisk together flour and salt. Mound flour mixture and form a well in the center. Add wine,1/3 cup water and egg to the well. Using a fork, gently break up yolk and slowly incorporate flour from inside rim of well. Continue until liquid is absorbed, then knead in bowl until dough forms a complete mass. Transfer to a well-floured work surface and knead for 3 to 4 minutes more. If dough is not coming together, add more water by the tablespoonful to moisten. Wrap dough tightly in plastic wrap and let rest for 30 minutes. Unwrap dough and knead for 5 minutes. Flatten dough so that it will fit through the rollers of a hand-cranked pasta machine. Set rollers of pasta machine at the widest setting, then feed pasta through rollers 3 or 4 times, folding and turning pasta until it is smooth and the width of the machine. Cut dough into 3 pieces; cover 2 pieces with a clean dishtowel. Begin rolling pasta through machine, decreasing the setting one notch at a time (do not fold or turn pasta) until sheet is 1/8-inch-thick. Cut pasta sheet into 2 pieces. Dust both sides of sheets with flour and cover 1 sheet with a clean dishtowel. Cut 1 sheet of pasta into 3-inch squares. Fill each with 1 teaspoon filling. Fold into triangles and seal with a dab of water. Transfer to a clean, dry lightly floured baking sheet. Repeat with remaining pasta sheet, then roll, cut and fill remaining dough,1 piece at a time.
To cook the pansotti, bring a large wide pot of salted water to a boil. Boil pansotti in batches of 25 until tender, 3 to 4 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer to a colander to drain, then transfer to a large bowl. Immediately toss with sauce and serve.