Walnuts take the spotlight in pasta dish
I've always thought walnuts tasted best in cookies, particularly chocolate chip and oatmeal cookies. Quick breads have also been a logical place to put some chopped walnuts.
My mom used to add chopped walnuts to tuna salad. That never did seem like a good match to me, but I do like them sprinkled over a salad of fresh greens with maybe a few little knobs of goat cheese, too.
Since enjoying a meal recently at Higgins Restaurant and Bar in Portland, Ore., I've discovered there is no end to the way healthful walnuts can be enjoyed.
I was in Portland for a conference and was invited to a special dinner, sponsored by the California Walnut Board. The "walnut dinner," held at Higgins Restaurant and Bar, was prepared by Chef Greg Higgins.
In April, the California Walnut Board announced the launch of their first Chefs Council, a group of food professionals, including Chef Higgins and cookbook author Mollie Katzen, who will determine some necessary steps needed to transform the current American menu into one providing healthy and delicious food options.
Why would the California Walnut Board bother with this? They have at least a few good reasons. America has become "obesogenic," characterized as a society that promotes increased portions, unhealthy food and physical inactivity. Right now, more than 67 percent of Americans are overweight or obese. Members of the Chefs Council believe Americans are worried about their health and want to eat better. Consumers are ready for change.
"We want to work to revolutionize the American menu," says Katzen. "It is our goal to educate and influence consumers that food cannot only taste good, but can also be good for you."
In a time when Americans are encountering disease at record numbers, it is the right time to incorporate delicious ingredients such as seasonal produce, whole grains, lean meats and pantry staples.
The meal at Higgins? Full of walnuts, of course. Things like walnut skordalia, lemon-walnut puree with blanched spinach, and warm maple-walnut tart not only forced my eyes closed with every single bite, it became very clear to me that I could have creative fun with walnuts in my kitchen.
Walnuts are a staple in my pantry. In addition to providing essential omega-3 fatty acids, they contain antioxidants, protein, fiber and various other nutrients.
I often store them in the refrigerator so they hold their rich flavor longer. Walnuts are considered a semi-fresh food, meaning that with proper storage and handling, they are good to eat for up to one calendar year.
When I got my hands on my first bunch of locally grown, freshly harvested asparagus last week, I knew immediately what I would do with the bright green spears. Roast them with a drizzle of olive oil and toss the sliced spears with lightly toasted walnuts, roasted garlic-infused olive oil and pasta.
It's a dish that doesn't take much time to prepare. It can be served with a side of grilled lean meat.
As your fork picks up each bite of Pasta with Roasted Garlic, Asparagus and Walnuts, you can feel good about making a wise healthful and delicious meal choice.
Pasta with Roasted Garlic, Asparagus and Walnuts
1 whole head garlic
1 pound asparagus spears, rinsed clean, tough ends removed
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons olive oil
3/4 pound pasta, such as bowtie (farfalle) or rombi
1 cup walnut halves
1 bunch green onions, white and tender green parts, sliced
1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Flat-leaf parsley, minced
Parmesan cheese, grated
Pour 1/2 cup olive oil into a large pasta bowl or mixing bowl and set aside. Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
Peel off any loose papery skin from the head of garlic. Slice off the tips of the garlic head, exposing all of the garlic cloves inside. Use 1 teaspoon from the 2 tablespoons of olive oil to rub over the exposed garlic. Wrap the head of garlic in aluminum foil, place it in an oven-proof dish or baking pan and bake in the preheated oven for 30 to 40 minutes, or until the bulb feels soft when gently pressed. Remove from oven.
While garlic is roasting, scatter walnuts in a single layer on a baking sheet. Place in oven, on a rack below the garlic, and roast for 5 minutes to lightly toast. Remove from oven and transfer to a plate to cool.
Once garlic and walnuts are out of the oven, increase temperature to 400 degrees.
When cool enough to handle, squeeze the pulp from each clove of garlic into the bowl of olive oil. Use a fork to mash the garlic, mixing it with the oil.
Put a large pot of water on the stove and heat to boiling for the pasta.
Arrange the asparagus spears in a single layer in a baking dish or foil-lined baking pan. Drizzle what remains of the 2 tablespoons of olive oil over the spears. Roll the asparagus spears back and forth until they are all covered with a thin layer of olive oil.
Place pan in oven and cook for approximately 8-10 minutes, depending on how thick the asparagus spears are, until lightly browned and tender when pierced with a fork. Remove from oven.
While asparagus is roasting, cook pasta until al dente (just tender enough to bite into comfortably but not yet mushy). Drain the pasta and transfer to the bowl containing oil and roasted garlic. Use a fork or wooden spoon to toss and turn the pasta until it becomes coated with the oil.
Cut the roasted asparagus into 1-inch pieces and add to pasta bowl. Add green onions and red pepper flakes. Break the toasted walnuts into smaller pieces and add to bowl. Toss it all together. Season with salt and freshly ground pepper. Sprinkle with minced parsley. Serve with grated Parmesan cheese. Makes 4 to 6 servings.
Tips from the cook
--Use a high quality olive oil for best flavor.
--Try making this with raw almonds, cashews or pistachios.
--I just discovered this short ribbon form of pasta with two ruffled edges called rombi. Break up some lasagna noodles for the same effect. Bowtie pasta will also work well in this recipe.