Thursday, November 11, 2010

Salsa Agresto

Every now and then, I experience a minor miracle: a food that my three children all like. Currently there are ten things on the list, and it is, indeed, a literal list, a dog-eared square of yellow card on our fridge naming the dinners my children have agreed to eat without fussing.

For the record, they are green pie, green tart, rice and lentils, pasta puttanesca (no chilli), pasta with olive and parsley sauce, pasta with tuna and peas, fried rice, tortillas with beans and guacamole, and couscous with chickpeas, cranberries and pine nuts. They will also eat homemade pizza they have topped themselves with olives and capers. It's not a very local list, and I struggle to find local foods that all three enjoy.

But this week, the miracle: salsa agresto! Salsa agresto is a sauce made from nuts, parsley and verjuice. It's principally used on meats and poultry, but I pretended it was a pasta sauce, tossed it through noodles and sprinkled it with parmesan. Boy, was it good.

It reminded me of a favourite salad I used to eat at a restaurant in DC made with fresh greens, and topped with homemade falafel balls, fresh grapes and toasted almonds. This was like eating the best bits of the salad in every mouthful.

At the base of the sauce lies verjuice*, which contributes a clear fruity flavour. Ordinarily I'd substitute something else; unlike lemons, verjuice doesn't grow on my neighbour's tree. However, the verjuice is what makes it. Its sweetness rounds out the flavours beautifully; straight lemon juice or vinegar would be too sharp. In any case, the word 'agresto' refers to grape juice, so without verjuice Salsa Agresto would have to be called something else.

The almonds were from our tree; the walnuts, local. If you are going to make this sauce, ensure you too are using fresh local almonds and walnuts. They're easy to find in the organic shops. Most imported nuts are rancid and will make your sauce sour and deeply unpleasant.

I based my sauce on a recipe in Maggie's Harvest. Maggie uses a combination of parsley and basil, but in my garden we don't see any basil until the parsley has well and truly gone to seed. In any case, I think the flavours of parsley, walnuts and almonds are quite enough, so I left the basil out.

Once the sauce was made, I reserved what we needed for one meal. The rest I placed in a very clean jar, covered it with a blanket of olive oil, and popped in the fridge. It should keep there for at least a week. We ate it with pasta; it would also go well with poultry, falafel or roasted root vegetables.

*Note: Verjuice contains sulphites; I realised this when I wandered around grumpily tight-chested for a couple of hours after the meal, then finally thought to check the bottle. If you, like me, are mildly sensitive to sulphites, consider warming the verjuice then simmering it uncovered for a few minutes. The heat will break down the sulphites into sulphur dioxide, which will evaporate (this is why you need to leave the lid of the saucepan off). Allow it to cool, then proceed with the recipe.

Of course, if you are highly sensitive to sulphites, cook something else; or try substituting half water, half lemon juice with a pinch of sugar, and adjust to taste; or even press your own grape juice from unripe grapes, which, in fact, is what I intend to do later this year as some of our grapes make a lovely juice, and the very thought of that delicate flavour as the base of this nutty sauce makes my mouth water even now.

Salsa Agresto

- ½ cup freshly shelled walnuts
- ½ cup freshly shelled almonds
- 1½ packed cups flat-leaf parsley
- 1 clove garlic
- ½ tsp salt
- ½ cup verjuice
- about ½ cup olive oil

Preheat the oven to 200°C. Roast the almonds and walnuts on a baking tray for 5 to 7 minutes, stirring from time to time. Remove from the oven when they smell lightly toasted. Rub any loose skins off the walnuts with a tea towel, and leave to cool.

Place the parsley, garlic, salt and nuts in a food processor and whizz. Slowly add the verjuice, then enough olive oil to loosen it up. Check for seasoning, and serve.

Adapted from a recipe in Maggie's Harvest by Maggie Beer.

(Local: walnuts, almonds, garlic, parsley, olive oil. Not too far away: verjuice. Not local: salt.)

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