Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Pasta with Caramelized Onions and Walnuts

Seven years ago, we spent a few months in Italy. My lasting impression is that the entire country has been turned into an enormous food garden. I am sure this is a terrible loss for eco-diversity – even the woods feel groomed – and yet wherever we went, we found food in public places. Whether it was juniper berries growing in the local woods, figs on a hillside next to a public path, or chestnuts falling onto the main road, food grew everywhere.

My daughter loved it. At nine months, she had developed a passion for figs; while we rested under a favourite tree, admiring the distant towers of San Gimignano and dreaming of the gelati shop in its town square, she'd reach from the baby backpack, pick figs and messily gorge herself, smearing pink glop all over her face, her hair, her father and the backpack.

Our hosts certainly treated the world as a food garden. They grew, baked or cured most of their food, and gathered or hunted much of the rest, driving miles to the best chestnut groves. The local variety, which we gathered by the roadside and found to be astonishingly plump and succulent compared to the meagre specimens we had had in Melbourne, were disdained.

On the first day of hunting season we were shocked awake by gunfire at dawn. A few hours later, I walked into the garage and came eye to eye with a skinned hare almost as long as my body hanging from the rafters; it was dripping blood into a bucket. At least it wasn't a boar. While walking home through the woods one night by the light of the mobile phone, we came across a young boar. We froze while it stared at us appraisingly, took a few menacing steps, then turned its tusks and snuffled away. It made me look at restaurant menus a little differently; for such deliciousness, boar was astonishingly ugly.

And the walnuts! A small car park at the top end of town was shaded by a spreading walnut tree. In the autumn, we noticed nuts all over the ground, many pulverized by car tyres. We filled our pockets – delizioso!

If you need a reason to like early winter, perhaps walnuts could be it. At this time of year, the walnuts are delicious: soft, mealy, sweet and fragrant. I buy them in their shell; it's a natural preservative and keeps the nut from turning rancid. It takes about five minutes to crack a cupful – hardly a chore – and I do this sitting outside, holding each nut pointy-side down on a brick or old tile, tapping it once or twice with a hammer, then flicking away the shell to reveal the caramel coloured kernel. It gets easier with practice; you only need to obliterate one or two nuts to learn exactly how much force to send pounding down!

Despite the pasta, the following recipe is not particularly Italian. Instead, think of it as homage to happy memories, and the soft warm flavours of winter.

Pasta with Caramelised Onions and Walnuts

- 400g brown onions, give or take
- 1 cup freshly shelled walnuts
- a walnut sized knob of unsalted butter
- 2 tbs olive oil
- 1 tsp dried thyme
- 2 long stems fresh rosemary
- ½ cup sherry
- ½ cup water
- 1 tbs walnut oil
- ¼ cup double cream
- 1 pack spaghetti or linguine (ie 1 lb / 500g white, 375g wholemeal if you're using the local and very filling Powlett's Hill)
- freshly grated parmesan

Warm a wide skillet and throw in the walnuts. Toast them in the skillet, tossing and shaking, for a few minutes until they are aromatic. Tip onto a plate, and wipe the pan. When the walnuts are cool, use your fingers to break them into small pieces.

Slice the onions into thin half-moons. Warm the butter and oil in a wide pan with the thyme and one stem of rosemary. Add the onions and a very generous pinch of salt, and cook over medium heat, stirring from time to time, until the onions have caramelized. This will take 20 to 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, bring a large pot of water to the boil.

When the onions are completely soft and succulent, turn up the heat and add the sherry. Reduce until it is syrupy. Add half a cup of water and the walnut oil, and reduce the heat again. Add the pasta and the other stem of rosemary to the pasta pot; while the pasta is cooking, allow the sauce to reduce again. You may need to add a little more liquid to ensure it doesn't stick; if so, scoop ¼ cup of water out of the pasta pot and add it to the onions. You want to end up with a small amount of liquid in the pan, just enough to coat the noodles.

When the pasta is cooked, drain it, discard the rosemary stalk, and tip the noodles into the onions. Add the cream, and gently mix until all is combined. Remove the other rosemary stalk and discard.

Slide the noodles into a large serving bowl, and sprinkle with the walnuts. Serve immediately, and pass the parmesan.

Adapted from a recipe in the indispensable Greens Cookbook by Deborah Madison.

(Local: onions, walnuts, olive oil, rosemary, thyme, walnut oil, cream. Not local: pasta (this time), butter, sherry, parmesan.)


  1. Hi Alison,
    This looks delicious. I've often made something similar with soft goats cheese, but without the cream or sherry. Looking forward to trying your recipe. Rachel

  2. Beautiful food does not have to be complex. It can be quick and simple and shared with loved ones. The icing on the cake comes when a meal takes you back to a time and place and the memories are almost tangible.

    ...aaah, food.