Recipe: U spaghett’antalina for la Vigilia di Natale
Pasta with walnuts. What a lovely thing that is. Spaghetti tossed with a walnut pesto is a dish I often make in cool weather. I just throw really fresh walnut halves, a garlic clove, grana Padano, extra-virgin olive oil (plus often a splash of walnut oil, if I have it), and abundant parsley into a food processor and pulse a few times until I’ve got a chunky paste. Sometimes I add butter, too. It’s a rich pasta that’s perfect for a first course, nice before rosemary roasted lamb, for instance.
Walnuts remind me of Christmas. My father always had a bowl of them, along with a simple nutcracker, hanging around the house somewhere during the holidays. Nuts with shells. Doesn’t that seem a thing of the past? Actually I’m not sure if I’d ever be up to making my walnut pesto if I had to shell and grind the nuts by hand. That, I feel, would be depressing, especially since I’m usually alone in the kitchen, working away, or sometimes it’s just me and Maria Callas, which is much more interesting.
Well, now on to Christmas Eve dinner. La Vigilia, the big fish dinner. My favorite meal of the year. I never know what I’ll be making until a few days before, and I change the menu every year. Since this year I’ve got walnuts on the brain (and possibly a brain the size of a walnut, at this stage of my life), I’m reminded of a Neapolitan walnut-and-anchovy pasta that’s traditional for this meatless though lavish meal. U spaghett’antalina is what it’s called in dialect, and the dish is fabulous. The annual walnut harvest in the Sorrento peninsula happens in the late fall, so by the time Christmas comes around the market is filled with really fresh, flavorful walnuts, which are famous throughout Italy. This beautiful pasta appears on a lot of Christmas Eve tables, both around Naples and in Italian-American households. My family never made it. We almost always had linguine with clam sauce to start, but since I’m now thinking about walnuts, this lovely pasta seems like the right thing to kick off my Christmas Eve menu this year.
Here’s the way I make it.
U spaghett’antalina for la Vigilia di Natale
1½ cups very fresh walnut halves
½ cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 garlic cloves, very thinly sliced
10 oil-packed anchovies, minced
1 pound spaghetti
A pinch of sugar
Freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon Fra Angelico liqueur (or a walnut liqueur, if you have it)
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
About ½ cup very lightly chopped flat leaf parsley
5 marjoram sprigs, leaves lightly chopped
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Spread the walnuts out on a sheet pan, and roast them until just fragrant, about 5 minutes. Make sure to watch that they don’t burn. You just want them lightly golden. Now stick them in a food processor, and pulse a few times, to give them a rough chop.
Set up a big pot of pasta cooking water, and bring it to a boil. Season with a good amount of salt, and drop in the spaghetti.
In a large skillet, heat the olive oil over a medium-low flame. Add the garlic and the anchovies, and sauté until fragrant, about a minute or so. Add the walnuts, seasoning them with salt, black pepper, and a little sugar, and sauté a minute just to coat them with oil. Add the liqueur, and let it boil away.
When the pasta is al dente, drain it, saving about ½ cup of the pasta water, and transfer it to a warmed serving bowl. Add the butter, and toss. Add the walnut sauce with all the skillet juices, the parsley, and the marjoram, and toss, adding a little pasta water if necessary to loosen the sauce. Taste to see if it needs more salt or black pepper. Serve hot.