Pasta in almond-garlic sauce (4-6 servings)

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What a week.  My high school students are rapidly running out of motivation and self-control, while I'm running out of patience and time.  This coming week is the last week of classes, and then the week after that is finals.  So by Friday night, I was hungry for something flavorful (after an eight-day battle with yet-unexplained abdominal pain left me able to eat little more than soup and peanut butter toast) but wasn't energetic enough to fuss.  I had bookmarked this Epicurious recipe a few weeks earlier as one to remember later in spring.  The title alone caught my interest -- almonds and garlic?  (Living together? Mass hysteria!)

Surprisingly, it turned out to be a harmonious combination.  The sauce smelled more garlicky than it tasted, and the almonds didn't really stand out at all.  In fact, this was one of those rare sauces in which all the ingredients were in such perfect proportion that no single element dominated; instead, they blended together beautifully to create a complex but unique flavor.  I did make some slight changes, but I'll elaborate on those a bit later.

You will need:

  • 3/4 cup whole blanched almonds (4 oz)
  • 3 garlic cloves
  • 3/4 cup water
  • 1 lb uncooked spiral or tubular pasta (I used rotini)
  • 2 Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
  • 3 Tbsp butter, divided
  • 10-oz package frozen peas, thawed
  • 1/2 cup grated parmesan
  • 1 Tbsp lemon juice
  • 1/2 cup basil leaves, torn into smaller pieces
  • 1/3 cup mint leaves, torn into smaller pieces

Steps:

  1. Start pot of water boiling for pasta.  You'll need some of the water for the sauce, so add a few cups more than you usually would.
  2. Meanwhile, puree blanched almonds and garlic with water and 1/4 tsp salt in a blender until smooth.
  3. When the pasta water is just thinking about starting to boil, heat the oil and 1 Tbsp butter in a heavy rimmed skillet over medium heat until the foam subsides.  Add the almond mixture and simmer, stirring occasionally, until the sauce is thickened (about 3 min). 
  4. The pasta water is probably boiling by this point, so cook the pasta until it's almost al dente and drain.
  5. When the sauce is thickened in the skillet, add in 2 1/2 cups water from the pasta pot, plus 1/4 tsp salt and some black pepper.  Simmer, stirring occasionally, until slightly thickened (3-4 min).  Add in remaining butter and stir until melted.
  6. The pasta should be cooked and drained by now, so add it and the peas into the skillet and cook, stirring occasionally, until the pasta is al dente (2-3 min).  Add cheese and lemon juice and stir to combine.
  7. Remove from heat and stir in the herbs, plus salt and pepper to taste.  Serve with additional parmesan to sprinkle on top.

I hope those directions made sense.  It's difficult to explain the timing of two simultaneous processes, and I probably made it sound more difficult than it really is.  Basically, I started the sauce just before I began cooking the pasta and then stole some of the pasta water for the sauce.  There!  That's simpler.

I made two changes to the recipe: first the almonds and then the peas.  I couldn't find whole blanched almonds, so I used slightly less than 3/4 cup of slivered blanched almonds.  My sauce was not as smooth as I'd hoped, and I think part of the reason was my wimpy food processor.  I think it would have turned out silkier in a more powerful appliance.  Also, I accidentally added only 1/4 cup of water to the almonds and didn't realize my mistake until after I had scraped the almonds out of the food processor bowl.  I mixed the rest of the water in with the almonds then, but adding it to the almonds at the right time might have yielded a smoother sauce.  Still, the slight crunch was sort of intriguing.

I also pureed the peas and added them to the skillet right after the last batch of butter melted.  My darling husband thinks he hates peas, so I had to disguise them.  This change also contributed to a chunkier sauce, but I didn't really mind.  The lemon, mint, and basil toned down the pea flavor, and even after I revealed the big secret, Bryan maintained that he liked the taste.  I would like to try this recipe again after I eventually upgrade to a nicer food processor, but I was happy with last night's results.  This was a perfect springtime recipe, and I was excited to be able to use local basil and garlic from the market and mint from my own backyard!