Monday, December 27, 2010

Pasta with Chévre, Sun Dried Tomatoes and Walnuts

Years ago, we spent a couple of months in a farmhouse south of Florence. Every week or two we'd catch the bus to Florence and take in some culture – the Uffizi, the Duomo, perhaps a Medici palace; then we'd head for a little lunch bar which was nothing more than a counter overlooking the street selling warm rolls and red wine. The rolls were stuffed with braesola, rocket and olives; or the unctuously salty porchetta; or any other of thirty-odd fillings. One day, I ordered goats cheese and sun dried tomato, and the dark smoky flavour of the tomato melded so perfectly with the cheese that it became my staple.

We'd stand around on the cobblestones chewing, chatting and window shopping next door as we had our quick bite; wine finished, we'd slip our empty glasses into the wooden pigeonholes mounted on the wall next to the counter and wander off. It may not have been the fanciest lunch, but it was simple food done well, and it hit the spot every time.

Now I'm a million miles from Florence and no longer drinking wine for lunch. As Christmas loomed and we ran around like headless chooks, I relied heavily on quick store cupboard meals: pasta with canned tomatoes; tortillas with canned pulses; rice and canned beans; tuna pasta – in other words, a heap of tins from Italy and nothing very local at all. I found myself wondering how to make a quick meal from local food, that is, a meal in minutes that required no peeling and almost no cooking.

One evening, as I heated water for pasta, I thought about the half block of chévre in the fridge. I remembered with satisfaction the Florentine sandwich; and I also recalled a favourite little nibble in Maggie's Harvest, in which vine leaves are stuffed with goats cheese and walnuts. Being the sort of person who always has sun dried tomatoes and walnuts handy, I put them together with the chévre, added a little thyme from the garden, tossed it all through some pasta, and hey presto! dinner.

The heat of the pasta softened the chévre, while the sun dried tomatoes and thyme provided small explosions of flavour, countering the mildness of the cheese. Walnuts gave it a bit of crunch, and the earthy scent of walnut oil wafted up with every bite.

The whole thing was an absolute doddle to make. On the side I served lettuce drizzled with walnut oil and a splash of vinegar, and came away feeling like I'd eaten well without having had to cook. Simple food, done well: whether in Florence or in Melbourne, it will always hit the spot.

A note on walnuts: Pre-shelled walnuts in a plastic bag imported from overseas are almost always rancid: bitter on the tongue, and smelling like glue. Use only freshly cracked walnuts or this year's vacuum packed Victorian walnuts. They will be sweet, nutty and delicious with not a hint of sourness. To shell a walnut, use a hammer: hold the nut, pointy side down, on a brick or the back step, tap once or twice with the hammer, and the shell will fall away.

Pasta with Chévre, Sun Dried Tomatoes and Walnuts

- 75g chévre
- 5 sun dried tomatoes
- 10 to 12 freshly shelled walnuts
- walnut oil
- a sprig of fresh thyme, (optional)
- pasta for two

Heat water for the pasta. When it comes to the boil, salt and drop in the pasta. Stir, bring back to the boil, and cook until al dente.

Meanwhile, wash the thyme and spin dry. Pick the thyme leaves from the stems and leave whole. Chop the sun dried tomatoes into small pieces. Break the walnut meats into pieces.

When the pasta is cooked, drain and tip into a serving bowl. Sprinkle in the thyme leaves; add the sun dried tomatoes and walnuts. Crumble the chévre over the pasta. Drizzle with walnut oil (I put a nozzle on the bottle which keeps it to a very thin stream; a glug would be unpleasantly overpowering), and mix well to combine. Serve at once. Pass the parmesan, if you wish.

(Local: pasta, chévre, walnuts, walnut oil, thyme. Not local: sun dried tomatoes.)

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