I learned so many things in the process of developing 30 new recipes for Food52’s Mighty Salads (the book turned one year old on April 11th!): how to store a huge haul of produce so it stays fresh for the week, various ways to bring salads to the main plate, and all sorts of strategies for making sturdy, portable salads for toting to work or a backyard gathering. But without question, one of my favorite discoveries was aillade, a simple sauce of pounded nuts and garlic from France that has endless salad potential.
I first encountered aillade in Judy Rodgers’ The Zuni Cafe Cookbook in a recipe for Grilled Asparagus with Pistachio Aillade. Rodgers describes aillade as “an emphatically garlicky thing” (ail means “garlic” in French). Her version calls for gently heating pistachios in a skillet until warmed through (just enough to release their oils without coloring or toasting them), pounding them into small, irregular pieces with garlic and coarse salt, submerging in good olive oil, and flavoring with a few swipes of tangerine zest.
Aillade, which hails from the Languedoc region in southern France, can be made from any number of nuts, though walnuts are most common. Some versions call for a pinch or two of chopped parsley at the end, yet the focus is always on the nuts and garlic. Paula Wolfert included a walnut-based aillade in The Cooking of Southwest France: Recipes from France's Magnificent Rustic Cuisine. Anne Willan’s recipe in The Country Cooking of France is simply called Garlic and Walnut Sauce. Aillade is customarily served as a piquant sauce for roasted fish, game, poultry, lamb, and vegetable dishes. Rodgers calls for smearing her pistachio aillade on the plate and then piling grilled asparagus on top.
But aside from cookbooks and websites devoted to French cuisine, recipes or even mentions of aillade are hard to find. David Lebovitz, who wrote about Rodgers’ pistachio aillade on his eponymous blog, predicted if you asked ten people in Paris what aillade is, ten out of ten wouldn’t know, unless they’re from the Languedoc.
Despite its obscurity, aillade is every bit as delicious and versatile as its famous Italian cousin pesto: toss aillade with pasta and grains, slather it on thick toast, swirl it into soup, drizzle it over eggs, spoon it over grilled meat and vegetables, and massage it into kale. As much I love pesto, I prefer aillade in salad-making because its flavors are so clean, bright, and focused, and its seasoning, balance, and consistency are so easy to adjust.
There couldn’t be a better time to start making aillade than right now, just as the best of spring’s produce is making its way to farm stands. In Mighty Salads, I featured aillade (loosely based on Rodgers’ version) in my Baby Artichoke, Fregola & Pistachio Aillade Salad. It’s a special salad, and if you spot baby artichokes, snatch them up and make it! I use the same pistachio aillade in this Asparagus Pasta, which is no less delicious. The aillade perfectly coats the pasta and complements the sweet, earthy flavor of asparagus. I like to finish the dish with plenty of parsley, tarragon, crumbled French feta, and piment d’espelette, though other kinds of herbs, cheese, and chile flakes stand in nicely. The whole dish comes together quickly and is bright, lemony, and full of flavor. I imagine the French from the Languedoc would approve.
For the pasta:
- 1 pound Casarecce pasta (fusilli also works well)
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1 tablespoon butter
- 3/4 cup thinly sliced spring onion (white parts only), or use 1 large shallot
- 2 bunches asparagus (about 2 pounds), trimmed and cut into 2-inch pieces
- 3/4 teaspoon Piment d’Espelette, or to taste (other mild chile flakes can be substituted)
- Kosher salt, to taste
- 3 to 4 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice, from 2 small lemons
- 1 cup French or other mild-tasting feta, crumbled
- 1/2 cup coarsely chopped tarragon
- 1/2 cup coarsely chopped parsley
For pistachio aillade:
- 1/2 cup unsalted shelled pistachios
- 2 garlic cloves, coarsely chopped
- Kosher salt, to taste
- Grated zest of 1 lemon
- 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil