A few years ago, my husband Tony and I decided to pay a visit to some of his relatives in the Dolomite region of Northern Italy. It was early fall, and they were excited that the walnut crop was at its peak as they wanted to treat us to a specialty dish of the region. We had no idea what made this sauce so special…until we had a taste! We asked them to document the simple recipe, which they did, and we are happy to share it now with 10Best readers.
1 cup walnuts
1 cup fresh basil leaves, packed
1/2 cup olive oil
3/4 cup heavy cream
6-8 garlic cloves (you can use 2-3 cloves if you prefer less)
1 small pepperoncini (optional)
Salt to taste (my recommendation: Sicilian sea salt from the salt mines of Trapani, readily available in stores and online)
The ingredients are super simple, as is the preparation. All you need are walnuts, fresh basil, olive oil, heavy cream and garlic cloves. As garlic aficionados, we use about six to eight cloves, but you can definitely moderate this amount to as few as two or three cloves, and they must be fresh. Powdered garlic will definitely not work in this recipe.
In our home in California, walnuts are harvested through late fall, so we take advantage of their fresh taste and lower cost, just as our Italian relatives do. That being said, they are available year-round in grocery stores around the country, so you can create this dish at any time of the year. Tip: you can freeze shelled walnuts for up to a year without a significant flavor loss.
Not everyone is lucky enough to have fresh basil growing year-round in their garden, but you’ll likely find this wonderful herb in grocery stores and at farmers markets across the country. Wash and dry the fresh basil, and feel free to use the flowering tops removed from the stem (they actually make great pesto).
Depending on how much sauce you require, factor in one cup of walnuts to every cup of packed basil leaves. We recommend about a half-cup olive oil (extra virgin is best) and as many fresh garlic cloves as you choose. We always use Sicilian sea salt in our cooking. Salt levels are a matter of taste, so keep dipping into the sauce to taste and determine your preferred level.
Our relatives used a mortar and pestle to blend the paste, as we know many chefs prefer, but we used our blender to pulverize the ingredients, which took a mere 20 seconds (though admittedly not as romantic as the age-old method).
Not everyone loves the hot zing of pepperoncini, but it is part of this local recipe, so we needed to include it as an option. If you’re a lover of a bit of spice, go for chopping up a small pepper and enjoy the kick it adds to this sauce.
The famous chef Julia Child memorialized her love of butter, but she also used cream in many of her recipes. Our Northern Italian relatives share this love of all things dairy, especially since the cream and cheese made from grass-fed bovines are famous in this region of Italy.
As per our cousins’ instructions, we used three-quarters cup of heavy cream to add to our mix and churned it up in our processor, but feel free to add a bit more for a heavier sauce, or even some half-and-half for a thinner one. After all, cooking is all about experimentation – and tasting along the way.
You can use any pasta for this sauce, but we opted to use store-bought tortellini (not the wonderful homemade versions we enjoyed at our relatives’ home) but tasty, nonetheless. Feel free to use any pasta to complement this sauce, though the tortellini was the preferred choice of our relatives and is the traditional pasta to use in this region.
This expression, which you’ll hear at every Italian family dinner as the wine glasses are raised in a toast, is a wish for a healthy appetite. There’s no doubt that this quick and delicious dish will provide just that.