The ancient Romans believed walnuts were food for the gods, while mortals had to subsist on lesser nuts like beechnuts and chestnuts. I received a more literal reminder that fall is walnut season, in the form of a very hard walnut shell falling, ker-plunk, on my head. Rubbing my temple, another fell, plop, on the sidewalk next to me, courtesy of a squirrel perched above me, feasting on those heavenly nuts, straight from the boughs of a walnut tree.
Often considered one of the world's healthiest foods, the fresh walnuts we picked up at a local farm recently were full of a rich flavor I'd never experienced before. I shelled a bunch and tucked them into the freezer for storage, and then I found a recipe for pasta with walnut sauce that sounded delicious. It was one of those happy occasions when I had all the ingredients on hand already, and I decided to add cubes of roasted butternut squash since I wanted a nice fall vegetable to round out the dish.
Dipping my finger in the sauce to taste, I knew we had a winner on hand. Rich with nuts, cream, and spice, with a slight sweetness from the wine, it was luxuriously good. While I love the slight chewiness of the mafalda pasta we had in the cabinet, I think this would really be best with fresh pasta, either handmade or from your grocery or local pasta maker. And while it all sounds a bit fancy, with nuts and cream and such, it's really quite simple: the sauce comes together in seconds in the processor, and then all you have to do is roast the squash and cook the pasta, easy enough for a weeknight. For an extra touch, you can garnish with a sage leaf fried in a little butter.
I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that the walnut sauce has a myriad of other uses: you can spread it on toasted bread, toss it with roasted vegetables, or even turn it into an amuse-like soup, garnished with pomegranate seeds.
Pasta with Butternut Squash and Walnut Sauce
A pasta dish just right for fall. The walnut sauce is wonderful and you'll quickly find a lot of other uses for it besides pasta. If you have truffe oil or walnut oil, they make a wonderful addition to the walnut sauce, just use a few drops along with the olive oil.
1 lb fresh pasta, like tagliatelle or fettucine
1 medium butternut squash, peeled, seeded, and diced
1 tbl chopped fresh sage
for walnut sauce:
8 oz (about 1 cup) shelled walnuts
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp nutmeg
salt and pepper
1/4 cup olive oil
1/4 cup light cream
1/4 cup late harvest white wine (like Muscato or Riesling), optional
1. Preheat the oven to 400F. Drizzle a little olive oil on a baking sheet, scatter the chopped squash, sage, and some salt and roll them around to coat. Roast the squash until browned and tender, shaking the pan a couple times during the process, about 45 minutes.
2. Make the sauce: Lightly toast the walnuts. Place in a food processor with the cinnamon, nutmeg, salt and pepper and pulse until ground. Drizzle in the olive oil, cream and wine with processor running, only until the paste is emulsified. (If you don't have wine on hand you can use broth or water.) You'll have about 2 cups sauce.
3. Cook pasta according to package directions. When pasta is done, drain and toss with roast squash and 1 1/2 cups of the walnut sauce. Serve immediately.
Walnut Soup: Thin the walnut sauce with a bit of chicken broth, be careful not to thin the soup too much of it may be watery (about 3/4 cup broth for 2 cups sauce). Serve in small demi-tasse cups garnished with pomegranate seeds as an amuse.
Roast Beets with Walnut Sauce: Roast beets until tender, then peel and dice. Toss with walnut sauce.