Hazelnutter (or, Penne al Fiorentino with a dash of nostalgia).

For a brief and shining period after my escape from college, I was the Brunch Queen. What this meant was that on any given weekend, I was the undisputed master of wrangling up to twenty of my nearest and dearest for brunch at a nearby eatery (an endeavor that, as my father would put it, was not entirely unlike herding cats). The food at our favored establishment was, at best, mediocre. But, for $12.95 with bottomless drinks included, we reappeared faithfully, with a rotating cast of boyfriends, girlfriends, and food obsessions.

My perennial favorite was the penne al fiorentino, lush and green and rich with ricotta and spinach.

As the brunch klatch fell apart (some say it was that we grew up; others that the restaurant started watering down the drinks more than was excusable), I found myself patronizing this eatery less and less…but I never forgot the penne. Despite the fact that during the period in which i loved it, my palate was not sophisticated enough to really parse its flavors, I promised myself that I would make it for myself someday…or perhaps even something better.

Fast forward to Tuesday afternoon. I find myself at my desk, mentally inventorying the contents of my fridge in preparation for the evening. Among other things, I come up with: half a container of ricotta cheese, a gorgeous bundle of fresh sage, some hazelnuts and half a bag of baby spinach. I.e., the perfect cast of characters to create my new, improved penne al fiorentino. On the way home I also pick up some portobello mushrooms and some asparagus, because much as i enjoy the nutty give of whole wheat pasta, I always love a little textural variation–and the meaty chewiness of the mushrooms and the sweet green crunch of the asparagus are just what the doctor ordered.

When I get home, I toast the hazelnuts in a skillet, enhancing their nutty richness and making the next step of removing the skins far easier: while still hot, just toss them into a tea towel, twist it closed and sort of massage the hazelnuts. The steam from their toasting will loosen the skins, and the friction of contact will start to pull them off. It’s not necessary, but it is neat!

(That is the most complicated part of the recipe, I promise.)

Once the nuts are dealt with, all you have to do is pull out your trusty mini-food processor (best $40 i’ve spent on my kitchen; I can’t recommend getting one of your own highly enough) and toss into the bowl: garlic (mass quantities), ricotta, parmesan, spinach, sage, olive oil, and the hazelnuts. Pulse it until it’s a heady, green-flecked, aromatic paste. At this time, you may need to summon up every ounce of your personal willpower to resist just shoving it into your mouth by the spoonful–it smells that good.

Meanwhile, cut up your asparagus into inch-long pieces (mushrooms, too); saute the asparagus until it’s crunchy, the mushrooms till they’re not. Then throw everything (green goodness included) in with an entire box of cooked whole wheat penne.

I promise I won’t say a word if you consume the whole pot. I very nearly did.

The concoction bears only a passing resemblance to the pasta of the brunch days–it’s gooey and creamy and green and highly addictive, but far more complex and savory–but my nostalgic heart likes to pretend that this is how good it was, when brunch was the highlight of my week, when I was young and poor and innocent and brave.

Penne al Fiorentino, sort of.

1/2 lb shelled hazelnuts
1c ricotta cheese
4-6 cloves garlic
3 good handfuls of baby spinach
small handful fresh sage, roughly torn
1/2 c shredded parmesan cheese
olive oil

1 box whole wheat penne, cooked according to directions

1 bunch of asparagus, cut into 1-inch pieces
2-3 portobello mushrooms, also cut into 1-inch pieces.

  1. In a large skillet, toast the hazelnuts for 2-3 minutes over medium-high heat. Be careful not to burn them–hazelnuts scorch quickly. When they’re brown and aromatic, place them in a kitchen towel; twist the towel closed and massage the hazelnuts together vigorously to remove the skins. Discard the skins.
  2. In a food processor, mix together nuts, garlic, ricotta, parmesan, sage, spinach, salt and pepper, moistening with olive oil until it achieves a chunky, paste-like consistency. Tinker with the amounts until it tastes irresistible to you.
  3. Meanwhile, saute your asparagus in a little olive oil and salt over medium-high heat until it is bright green and just tender–just a few minutes. Remove them from the skillet and set them aside.
  4. Reduce the heat, and in the same skillet, saute your mushrooms until they are meaty and juicy; add a dash of balsamic vinegar if a little extra acidity floats your boat.
  5. When everything is juicy and warm and smells so good that you can barely stand it, throw it all together with your freshly cooked and drained pasta–sauce, veg, everything. Garnish it with a little extra parmesan and some chopped hazelnuts. You will not regret it.
In fall, pasta, recipe

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