Dining With the Saints for Christmas Eve

U spaghett’antalina for La Vigilia di Natale

Christmas Eve dinner, La Vigilia, is a meatless holiday meal, but that doesn’t prevent Catholic families, especially in Italy, from going all out. Fish and vegetable preparation are the theme and they are lavish and numerous. U spaghett’ antalina, as it’s called in Neapolitan dialect, is spaghetti tossed with a rich walnut and anchovy sauce. It’s a classic that appears on many Christmas Eve tables, both around Naples and in Italian-American households, usually as a first course.

The annual walnut harvest in the Sorrento peninsula happens in the late fall so by the time Christmas comes around the Neapolitan markets are filled with these really fresh, flavorful walnuts that are famous throughout Italy. I seldom find these lovely walnuts in New York, but when I make this dish, I look for the freshest nuts I can find. http://www.buonitalia.com is a great source for imported Italian nuts. I often buy from them.

Merry Christmas to you, and god bless.

spaghett’antalina for La Vigilia di Natale

(serves 5 as a first course)

1 ½ cups very fresh walnut halves

Sea salt

1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil

2 garlic cloves, very thinly sliced

10 oil-packed anchovies, minced

1 pound spaghetti

a pinch of sugar

Freshly ground black pepper

1 tablespoon Fra Angelico liqueur (or a walnut liqueur if you have some)

3 tablespoons unsalted butter

About ½ cup very lightly chopped flat leaf parsley

4  marjoram sprigs, leaves lightly chopped

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Spread the walnuts out on a sheet pan and roast them until just fragrant, about 5 minutes. Make sure to watch that they don’t burn. You just want them lightly golden.  Now stick them in a food processor and pulse a few time, to give them a rough chop.

Set up a big pot of pasta cooking water and bring it to a boil. Season with a good amount of salt and drop in the spaghetti.

In a large skillet, heat the olive oil over medium-low flame. Add the garlic and the anchovies and sauté until fragrant, about a minute or so. Add the walnuts, seasoning them with salt, black pepper, and a little sugar, and sauté a minute just to coat them with oil. Add the liqueur and let it boil away.

When the pasta is al dente, drain it, saving about ½ cup of the pasta water, and transfer it to a warmed serving bowl. Add the butter and toss. Add the walnut sauce with all the skillet juices, the parsley and the marjoram, and toss, adding a little pasta water if necessary to loosen the sauce. Taste to see if it needs more salt or black pepper. Serve hot.

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