Pasta in Spinach and Walnut Sauce
I belong to the category of millennial Indians who were oblivious to pasta in their childhood. Contrary to Generation Z who devour this world-favourite source of carbohydrates and ask for more, millennials in India were hardly aware of its existence until the 2000s, the time when pasta made its way to Indian restaurants in the bustling metropolitan cities. I remember the first time I heard about pasta was from my sister, who was then pursuing her masters in Pune —one of the larger cities in India— and she told us that few dishes that were served in some restaurants under the label of continental food on the menu, and pasta happened to be one of them. I was then in Rourkela, a much smaller city in India with my parents. Thanks to my big sister, her moving to Pune was an eyeopener for me and my middle sister to what the western world ate.
Over the years when I moved to Bombay and got the opportunity of dining in restaurants that serve this favoured flour dish, I understood what continental food actually means and realized pasta is staple throughout the continent of Europe (and so the cuisine from European 'continent' often labelled as continental food in restaurant menus). With immigration, pasta also travelled to the Americas and led to the growth of the US pasta industry in the nineteenth century. Be it spaetzle, orzo, pierogi, spaghetti, vermicelli, fettuccine, lasagna, penne, macaroni, ravioli, rotini, farfalle — and I have not covered even half the varieties here perhaps — pasta is made, cooked and eaten not just in Italy (where we think it originated), but across the breadth of this planet.
Quoting from Tori Avey's research on the history of pasta:
The history of pasta is difficult to trace for several reasons. The word itself translates to paste in Italian. This is a reference to the dough, made from a combination of flour and water or eggs, all simple components that have been around for centuries. This makes it hard to differentiate pasta from other ancient dishes made from the same ingredients.
Hungry for more pasta history or want to make pasta at home? Checkout this thoroughly beautiful series From Italy to India – Handmade pasta in your kitchen by Tara Deshpandey.
Pasta happens to be my husband, Saurabh's most-loved food. Give it to him in any form (without meat), penne doused in a plain tomato sauce, pesto oozing on a bed of rotini, fettuccine slathered in an Americanized creamy sauce, pan fried pierogis (stuffed dumpling kind of pasta) with caramelized onions or a no-fuss spaghetti aglio eolio, he is a happy man if there's pasta for a meal! Living abroad and resorting to quicker meals than elaborate, his love for pasta is not astounding. He often talks about the pasta meals which were offered prior and after marathons he ran with utmost ardor!
Learning through Saurabh's experiences with pasta, which are older than mine and rooted in his life in Europe, and through Italian friends and acquaintances in the cosmopolitan city of Toronto, my understanding of how Indians eat pasta has evolved. The concept of pasta sauces is non-Italian. In Italy the focus of a meal is the pasta itself while the sauce is a condiment, and that is why an Italian will value the variety of pasta for a dish than the sauce. The Indian palette which is usually comfortable with a tenderer texture of pasta than al dente, loves the sauces wrapping the pasta. In wake of this, many restaurants have presented a rather debased version of pasta to the Indian population. Either too saucy or too creamy, the memory of pasta from these restaurants aren't the ones I love to recall. No wonder a big chunk of the boomers and Generation X in India don't prefer pasta in their meal at all! Having said that, I also got the opportunity to enjoy some really good pasta back in India too. Although these food joints aren't the most easily accessible or affordable ones always.
It's fascinating how food travels from one part of the world to another through migration, tourism and trade, and customized to suit the taste and flavour bases throughout its journey and at its destination, sometimes compromising its identity in not so pleasant ways.
Any tips for making a good pasta?
Although I wouldn't call myself an expert, I speak from experience there are few things that are critical to make pasta taste good and truly 'pasta'.
The water that you have after draining the pasta is sacrosanct — trust me on this, if you don't know it already. Don't throw it all! Save some of it and add to your pasta when you season with herbs and olive oil. This water is vital to induce all the lovely flavours you crave in a good pasta.
I personally prefer pasta to be al dente, and so I stick to the instructions on the package (I haven't yet attained the stage in cooking where I can make my own pasta - someday soon hopefully!). However, if you prefer a softer pasta, boil it about 1 or 2 more minutes than what is advised on the package.
I choose vegetables that I thoroughly enjoy when making pasta, like mushrooms, zucchini, asparagus and broccoli. If I have to make it with meat, I prefer shrimps, scallops or chicken.
I always prefer cooking pasta in extra virgin olive oil (cold pressed). I don't think any other oil works so well as olive oil in pasta and truly lends an authentic taste to pasta. Season your pasta in olive oil, herb and garlic, and you can never go wrong. It's perfect even without any additional layer of sauce.
When you do want to add sauce, a simple tomato, pesto or green sauce like this one is not hard to make at all. I like to keep my pasta as simple as possible, and add more vegetables or some meat to make it fancy without adding tons of cream or spices.
What about this pasta recipe?
This recipe is my calling towards homemade sauces than the gloopy heavy sauces often sold as pasta sauces. I love the flavour of green herbs with nuts, a natural way of turning a vegetable heavy sauce into a slightly creamier version. Spinach and walnut are a heavenly match just like spinach and garlic, and they are both excellent sources of nutrients.
I like a sour note in sauces, so I have used lemon juice as a sauce ingredient in this recipe. I have used a quarter of a large red bell pepper to balance the hot peppercorns. You could skip the bell pepper and/or use less peppercorns if you wish, but I recommend not skipping the lemon juice. You'll be surprised how beautifully it works in the ensemble.
The pasta I have used in this recipe penne made from rice. You can use any other variety of your choice. Although, I fell penne holds up the sauce really well in this dish. Rotini could be another good choice.
You'd notice in the recipe that I've added quite a bit of vegetables with the pasta, and that's only because of my crazy vegetable-loving heart. The veggies used are all green in this recipe and their texture matches that of penne, making the dish look pretty! If you're planning to skip the vegetables, I would highly recommend spaghetti! The noodle-like pasta taste an absolutely gorgeous with plain sauces, and the spinach walnut sauce is no exception!
300 to 400 grams of your favourite pasta (I prefer penne for this recipe)
1/4 cup zucchini sliced
1/4 cup broccoli florets
1/4 cup asparagus
1 tsp garlic minced
1/2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1/2 tsp chili flakes
1 tsp tsp parsley finely chopped
salt to taste
For the sauce:
2 cups spinach leaves blanched
1/2 cup walnuts lightly toasted
1/2 a red bell pepper chopped
4-5 pods of garlic
1 tbsp parsley chopped
1 tsp oregano leaves (optional)
1/4 tsp peppercorns
1 tsp lemon juice or vinegar
1/2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
Salt to taste
In a blender all the ingredients mentioned for the sauce and make a thick creamy green paste.
Add water generously to a pot, sprinkle salt and bring to boil. Next add pasta and cook as per the instructions on the packet or until al dente. Drain and keep aside about a cup of the pasta water.
Next, add about 1/4 of the green sauce to the drained pasta, mix and keep aside.
Place a large pan on medium heat, add oil and then add the garlic. Sauté the garlic taking care to not brown it.
Add all the veggies, sprinkle salt and sauté till the veggies are cooked. This should take roughly 7 to 10 minutes.
Add the pasta, few spoons of the kept aside pasta water, the remaining sauce and cook for about 2 to 3 minutes or until you're happy with the consistency of the sauce. Add the chilli flakes and mix.
Switch off heat and garnish with chopped parsley.
Serve hot and enjoy a healthy creamy green sauce pasta guilt free! You can top up the pasta with some grated Parmesan cheese if you're not vegan. With or without cheese, this pasta in green sauce is a thoroughly tried and tested recipe and both my husband and I love it to bits!
If you make this recipe, drop in your comments about what you felt or tag me on Instagram with your photos of this pasta! I would love to hear from you!