Trofie al pesto di nocciole e arancia con asparagi alla griglia
Okay, so this one is a bit weird and wonderful. I’ve described the nutty sauce here as a ‘pesto’, because it’s prepared in a similar way and sounds quite intriguing. But really, we aren’t talking about ‘pesto’ here at all. You see, rather than the world-renowned pesto alla Genovese, with its pine nuts and intoxicatingly aromatic basil, this hazelnut-orange sauce owes much more to some of Liguria’s lesser known nut-based sauces. Tocco di noce, for instance, is a wonderful century-old sauce made with a mixture of ground skinned walnuts, garlic, breadcrumbs, Parmigiano-Reggiano and fresh marjoram. With its creamy texture and gentle bitterness, this nutty sauce makes a truly magnificent partner to pasta. The Ligurians traditionally use tocco di noce to cover their local herb-stuffed pansôti, and this produces a primo piatto so outrageously delicious that the mere thought of it makes me want to pack up and head for Genova.
Yet you’ll notice that it’s not walnuts, but hazelnuts, that are used in this recipe. You see I just can’t resist using hazelnuts at any possible opportunity. They have maintained a curious hold on me ever since I packed little baguettes plastered with nutella everyday for school. Eating my thickly-spread sandwiches always felt like a reliable moment of comfort and they were frankly the saviour of an otherwise lacklustre lunch box.
Beyond their affinity with chocolate, it must be said that hazelnuts exude a truly incredible flavour of intense nuttiness when they’re toasted. I just recently made deliriously good use of them, in this fine toasted form, by making industrial quantities of home-made granola. In the days before this granola, I would perhaps prefer a stonking great bowl of steamy porridge for breakfast, but this crunchy and all too bourgeois breakfast just seems a cut above.
Hazelnuts are known as nocciole or avellane in Italy and they are found in abundance, growing wild in the regions of Liguria, Piedmont, the Apennines and Sicily. These nocciole are highly-prized and feature in various regional recipes for sauces to go with pasta, meat and fish. They are also widely used for biscotti, torte and, best of all, in the gorgeous golden-wrapped gianduiotti – ‘boat-shaped’ chocolates made with the superlative hazelnuts of Piedmont. I assure you, these are perfectly formed pieces of luxury.
Anyway, I digress; the point is that this pasta and quasi-pesto recipe is a smash. Hazelnuts are characteristically delicious here and the formidable combination of hazelnuts, tangy orange and succulent grilled asparagus is a total triumph. So really, why not cross that generic jar of pesto off your shopping list this week?
Before you begin:
- I’m not entirely confident about giving you exact quantities and measurements for this recipe, because there are so many variables involved. For instance, unlike Coca-cola or Campbell’s soup, the glorious crystal-crunch of Parmigiano-Reggiano is not uniformly the same. Parmigiano can vary considerably, depending on its age and quality, from very sharp to rather mellow. And similarly, your olive oil may very peppery or mild and fruity. So you should consider the measurements I have given here only as suggestions. Taste constantly, and feel free to adjust the quantities and balance the flavours, until it tastes just right to you.
- Trofie is one of my all-time favourite pasta shapes with its irresistible chewiness and oh so rustic charm. However, please don’t feel restricted to this. This recipe also tastes grand with fusilli and most long pasta varieties like fresh fettuccine or dried tagliatelle.
- If you don’t own a griddle pan, you could instead roast the asparagus for 20 minutes at 200°C.
- On this occasion you’ll notice I ate all my beloved blood oranges, but regular navels do suffice. Nevertheless if you can you should use blood oranges here.
Pasta with hazelnut and orange pesto and chargrilled asparagus
Serves 3 as a main course
For the pesto:
- 100g hazelnuts, shelled
- 1 garlic clove, finely chopped
- ½ dried chilli, crumbled
- 1 fresh orange
- 50g Parmigiano-Reggiano, more to finish
- 6 tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil , ideally a light Ligurian kind
- freshly grated nutmeg, a large pinch
- salt and freshly ground black pepper
For the rest:
- 300g dried trofie pasta
- 1 tablespoon rapeseed oil or extra-virgin olive oil
- 200g fine asparagus spears
- salt and freshly ground black pepper
Heat the oven to 180°C, lay the hazelnuts on a baking tray, and toast them in the pre-heated oven for 10 minutes. Whilst the nuts are still warm, fold them up in a tea-towel and give them a vigorous rub to remove as much of the skins as possible.
To make the pesto, put the finely-chopped garlic into a food processor with a pinch of salt. Give it a whiz, then add the toasted nuts. Whiz again until the nuts are well ground, add the chilli and the freshly grated zest of ¼ an orange (a large pinch). Whiz again, add the grated Parmigiano-Reggiano with a grind of black pepper and blend to a rough pulp. Carefully pour in the oil, whilst whizzing constantly, until the pesto emulsifies. Grate in some nutmeg and squeeze in ½ tablespoon of fresh orange juice, stir and taste for seasoning. Spoon the thick pesto into a container and cover.
Cut off the tough ends of the asparagus and throw them away. Toss the spears in the oil and season with salt and pepper. To avoid over-crowding, cook the asparagus in two batches: line up half of the asparagus spears in a hot griddle pan across the ridges. Grill for 7-9 minutes, turning often, until al dente and slightly charred. Repeat this process with the remaining amount of asparagus.
Take half the amount of the grilled asparagus spears and chop into 1 cm discs, but keep the tips intact. Keep the other half of the asparagus spears whole. Keep all the asparagus warm.
Cook the pasta in lots of heavily-salted water until al dente, frequently stirring and testing the pasta’s consistency often.
While the pasta is cooking, spoon the pesto into a bowl that’s big enough to hold the pasta later. Spoon in some of the pasta cooking water and whisk into the pesto with a fork to loosen it up. Add the chopped asparagus (the discs and tips) and mix well into the pesto sauce. Check for seasoning. Keep the bowl warm, by placing the it over the cooking pasta and stirring, so that the steam heats the sauce through. Take care that the pasta doesn’t boil-over.
Drain the pasta when it’s ready, reserving some of the starchy pasta-water, and carefully mix the pasta into the warmed pesto sauce. Loosen things up with more pasta-water if necessary and check for seasoning. Divide the pasta out onto individual serving plates and top with the reserved whole asparagus spears. Finish with a good drizzle of olive oil, a generous sprinkle of parmigiano-reggiano, and serve immediately.