Genius Recipes

This Speedy Sauce Ended My Pasta Rut

This week’s Genius Recipe from Heidi Swanson is nutty, bright, and creamy—minus the cream.

August 26, 2020

Every week in Genius Recipes—often with your help!—Food52 Creative Director and lifelong Genius-hunter Kristen Miglore is unearthing recipes that will change the way you cook.


Though there have been more ambitious moments the past five months—the week of the bo ssam, every crispy cheesy pan pizza and buttermilk biscuit I’ve tested for this column—if I’m being honest what I’ve eaten is…the same two pastas. I don’t think I’m alone. (Please tell me I’m not alone.)

Something new! Photo by Julia Gartland. PROP STYLIST: BROOKE DEONARINE. FOOD STYLIST: SAMANTHA SENEVIRATNE.

Pasta is a last-minute pantry feast for tired anyone, not least of all us parents who’ve been double-dutying childcare and work (and, for some, up and moving across the country). Most nights, at I’m-not-telling-you-how-late o’clock, in the serene quiet of a toddler finally asleep, I look at my husband and, with equal parts comfort and resignation, we start moving faster: pot on, salt in, box out, go.

This is the best thing I’ve cooked with the least amount of effort in the past month.
Heidi Swanson (and soon, you)

Luckily, I’ve found a new favorite answer in these hungry moments, which I hope will save you in yours too—one that hinges on a handful of ingredients I always have around and comes together in the time it takes water to boil. It even has a real sauce!

Join The Conversation

Top Comment:
“I don't make a sauce out of the nuts and pasta water in that way though, so I really want to try Heidi's method out. That creamy consistency is super interesting. Some great additions could be, fresh tomatoes with basil or peas, alternatively, fried up sausage, quartered slices of yellow onion (just slightly cooked) mushrooms, and red pepper ( just until charred with a slight bite) as well. I like to add Calabrian chili to my pasta, and I like to toast my breadcrumbs and toss them in lemon juice, zest, and salt after, so I'd do that as well. Thanks for this, I look forward to making Heidi's version. ”
— Analise S.
Comment

It comes from Heidi Swanson, the writer and photographer behind the blog 101 Cookbooks, the shop Quitokeeto, and a gaggle of stunning cookbooks. Her next one is called Super Natural Simple, which is a perfect description of this very recipe. (Will it be in the book? We’ll have to wait and see!)

Just making cream without cream, no big deal. Photo by Julia Gartland. PROP STYLIST: BROOKE DEONARINE. FOOD STYLIST: SAMANTHA SENEVIRATNE.

To make it, you simply crush a heap of toasted walnuts with some garlic, then swirl in grated Parmesan and some of your starchy pasta water. There is no butter, no olive oil, no cream—yet it magically turns creamy, as the oils from the nuts and cheese emulsify into the salty water. Then you doctor it with lemon juice and toss in your noodles (reginetti, fusilli, or conchiglie are a few of her suggestions, but anything short and sauce-catching is great).

You can stop right there, or fancy it up with herbs and bread crumbs and chile oil. As Heidi wrote on 101 Cookbooks back in April, “This is the best thing I’ve cooked with the least amount of effort in the past month.” I would have to agree.

But there’s more to the genius of her recipe than a brilliant, immediate meal: Heidi also gives us a jumpstart on turning this into an oft-repeated template. Swap in pecans or almonds (or a mix) and shift the sauce’s character. Toss quick-cooking green vegetables, like broccoli or asparagus, into the bubbling pasta for the last minute (were you really going to make a side dish, sleepy Kristen?). Transform the leftovers into a punchy, pasta e fagioli–like stew.

All of which will help the many, many nights we’ll be making this feel like something new.

Got a genius recipe to share—from a classic cookbook, an online source, or anywhere, really? Perhaps something perfect for beginners? Please send it my way (and tell me what's so smart about it) at [email protected]—thank you to our Food Stylist Anna Billingskog for this one!

This post contains products independently chosen (and loved) by our editors and writers. As an Amazon Associate, Food52 earns an affiliate commission on qualifying purchases of the products we link to.
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See what other Food52 readers are saying.

I'm an ex-economist, lifelong-Californian who moved to New York to work in food media in 2007, before returning to the land of Dutch Crunch bread and tri-tip barbecues in 2020. Dodgy career choices aside, I can't help but apply the rational tendencies of my former life to things like: recipe tweaking, digging up obscure facts about pizza, and deciding how many pastries to put in my purse for "later."

42 Comments

Kevin B. September 3, 2020
I used only 1 1/3 cup of the pasta water, it’s too much sauce. Didn’t look like the pic in the recipe.
 
[email protected] September 3, 2020
Another awesome video! Thanks for inspiring me on a regular basis these last few months. The recipes you feature help me think outside the box and have really sharpened my cooking skills and creativity. Looking forward to seeing you in a couple weeks!
 
Jenewoman August 30, 2020
This looks so delicious I will be trying it very soon. I’m allergic to cow milk so I plan to substitute Romano cheese for the Parmesan.

I just discovered your genius recipes. Thank you!
 
Margaret L. August 27, 2020
The pasta looks really good, but the baby looks IRRESISTABLE! says the grandmother. More baby, please!
 
Author Comment
Kristen M. August 29, 2020
:) she always adds a little spice.
 
Jennifer H. August 27, 2020
I’m not sure what went wrong here, but this wasn’t good. Just watery ground nuts, despite vigorous stirring. If I try it again, I’ll grind the nuts more finely (didn’t want it to turn into nut butter). Really bummed, as we were looking forward to this but had to bin it.
 
Author Comment
Kristen M. August 29, 2020
Hi Jennifer, I'm so sorry to hear it. I'd recommend either grinding a little more finely, using less water to boil the pasta and taking it out close to the end of cooking so it's nice and starchy, and starting with less water in the sauce (I sometimes use as little as a cup). And in every case, adjusting the salt and lemon to taste.
 
Andrew W. August 27, 2020
@kristen Would you say that the bite of fresh garlic is important to the recipe? Because I'm thinking I might halve and toast mine with the walnuts or, if that's too much, maybe soak them in the lemon juice while the nuts are toasting.
 
Author Comment
Kristen M. August 29, 2020
Hey Andrew, the raw garlic makes itself known in a very punchy way (which is why I round down if the cloves are fat), but I bet the sauce would still be delicious with mellower garlic, too.
 
Val G. August 30, 2020
I thought the fresh garlic might be a bit much but was pleasantly surprised - there’s a little bite but not that much, and not much garlic breath afterwards or the next morning. Might try the lemon juice soak next time, since my grocery store only sells roasted walnuts in the bulk dept.
 
Andrew W. August 27, 2020
@kristen Would you say that the bite of fresh garlic is important to the recipe? Because I'm thinking I might halve and toast mine with the walnuts or, if that's too much, maybe soak them in the lemon juice while the nuts are toasting.
 
Analise S. August 27, 2020
I've been making a slightly similar dish this summer. I don't make a sauce out of the nuts and pasta water in that way though, so I really want to try Heidi's method out. That creamy consistency is super interesting. Some great additions could be, fresh tomatoes with basil or peas, alternatively, fried up sausage, quartered slices of yellow onion (just slightly cooked) mushrooms, and red pepper ( just until charred with a slight bite) as well. I like to add Calabrian chili to my pasta, and I like to toast my breadcrumbs and toss them in lemon juice, zest, and salt after, so I'd do that as well.

Thanks for this, I look forward to making Heidi's version.
 
Author Comment
Kristen M. August 29, 2020
Love these ideas, Analise!
 
aretz August 27, 2020
Is there a substitute cheese that would work in place of the Parmesan? I dislike the flavor but otherwise the recipe sounds so great! Thank you.
 
Cindy Y. August 27, 2020
I use nutritional yeast in place of Parmesan. It has a very cheesy flavor.
 
Analise S. August 27, 2020
Cotija, Mizithra or romano? These are all kind of similar and nutty in flavor. So, might not be your thing, but I always use these if I don't have parmesan on hand.
 
aretz August 27, 2020
thanks Cindy Y. and Analise S., great suggestions.
 
Author Comment
Kristen M. August 29, 2020
Aretz, our Food Editor Emma Laperruque used nutritional yeast and loved it.
 
janet T. August 27, 2020
Fresh, chopped Italian parsley added at the end sounds like a good idea.
 
Author Comment
Kristen M. August 29, 2020
Definitely.
 
Amy F. August 26, 2020
I love 101 Cookbook... but was your video a 2nd thought? It's not too hard to have all of the ingredients before you begin filming... Thank you for being human... But......hummmm
 
Author Comment
Kristen M. August 29, 2020
Hi Amy, I do try to have everything prepped the night before (usually quite late the night before) but... I just couldn't find the pepper. (I found it later, stuffed behind the rice and pasta.) Filming these videos at home during a pandemic, I'm trying to make it work just like everyone else, and I hope that my being flexible gives people ideas of how they can be, too.
 
CFrance September 14, 2020
I thought the video was great, even showing the "videographer" at times (I'm assuming your partner/husband/S/O :-) ) and the adorable baby toddling about and rejecting the sauce. Also truthful little touches like having to borrow the Cuisinart. I haven't tried the recipe yet, but will as soon as I am okayed to resume eating nuts.
 
Bonni B. August 26, 2020
Love your adorable assistant! 💖
 
Author Comment
Kristen M. August 29, 2020
Thank you :)
 
darla20 August 26, 2020
Love all this. Bought the cookbook and it is amazing!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

 
Author Comment
Kristen M. August 29, 2020
Heidi's cookbooks are so inspiring.
 
Cindy Y. August 26, 2020
Love your genius recipes, Kristen and this one sounds incredibly delicious and nutritiously nutty. Will be making it with toasted hazelnuts as I have a weird reaction to walnuts if I eat too many. :-( The idea of adding blanched veggies to it is a wonderful way to round out the meal in one bowl. Interested to hear about your new projects!
 
Author Comment
Kristen M. August 29, 2020
Thank you, Cindy!
 
Cav August 26, 2020
So, salsa di noci then? As The Silver Spoon: Pasta has it?
 
eirroc August 26, 2020
Salsa di noci has cream in it, no? This recipe is similar, though, and I’m definitely looking forward to trying it out since I have all the ingredients in my kitchen already!
 
Author Comment
Kristen M. August 29, 2020
Thanks for mentioning—I'll look out for that version, too.
 
phip August 26, 2020
Kind of a streamlined salsa di noce from Liguria (home of pesto). If you add some stale bread soaked in milk to the blender you basically have the real deal. Quite filling.
 
Author Comment
Kristen M. August 29, 2020
Thank you for mentioning the Ligurian version, phip.
 
Alison H. August 26, 2020
Can this be done without walnuts but another nut?
 
phip August 26, 2020
You can but it would be entirely different as this sauce is all about the walnut flavor. If you have tongue reaction to walnuts, as do many in my family, you should try soaking the walnuts overnight in cold water. Raw foodists swear by soaking nuts and seeds and then dehydrating them as it eliminates certain toxins. This makes all more time intensive and less “genius”
 
MozeOso August 26, 2020
"But there’s more to the genius of her recipe than a brilliant, immediate meal: Heidi also gives us a jumpstart on turning this into an oft-repeated template. Swap in pecans or almonds (or a mix) and shift the sauce’s character. Toss quick-cooking green vegetables, like broccoli or asparagus, into the bubbling pasta for the last minute (were you really going to make a side dish, sleepy Kristen?). Transform the leftovers into a punchy, pasta e fagioli–like stew."
 
Alison H. August 26, 2020
That's crazy. I have not heard of that as 'yes' we have a tongue reactive contingent in the family (myself included). Will try it! Thanks
 
Tom73 August 26, 2020
Knowing of my walnut allergy, and that almonds are ok, a friend soaked smoked almonds as a sub in carrot cake. I found it delicious and she thought it was perfect, little character of the original being lost
 
JoAnne L. August 26, 2020
Being allergic to walnuts is more than a tongue reaction for many. Use caution when adding any item you’re allergic to, soaked or not!
 
annette August 26, 2020
Thank you!
What are the other two pastas you’ve been relying on, please?
 
Author Comment
Kristen M. August 29, 2020
Thanks for asking, Annette—on nights when we need a lot of nourishment, we do a mishmosh of crispy Italian sausage, chickpeas, and broccoli rabe. On nights when we're just so tired and need dinner fast, it's butter and Parm (ideally with a veg on the side).