There once was a king who had three sons of marriageable age. This is how a folktale from Piedmont, told by Italo Calvino, begins. There was rivalry, so the king decided to sort out their inheritance with three stones. One after the other, the kids would use a slingshot to send their stone as far as they possibly could. Where the stone fell, they would find a partner.
The first stone, of the eldest son, landed on the roof of a bakery, and the second on the house of a weaver, while the stone of the youngest’s landed in a ditch. Each grabbing a ring, the three boys charged off to meet their match. Arriving at the bakery, the first met a girl as beautiful as a just-baked focaccia. At the weaver’s house, meanwhile, there was a young woman with hair like silken thread. And, from the ditch, emerged a frog.
Of course, this was only the beginning. Not only had the three love interests been picked by a flying stone, but they now faced a test from the king. Each was given a bundle of hemp and three days: the best spinner would inherit the kingdom. Now, the second son must have felt very cocky as he arrived at the weaver’s house; the first son, too (also because of all the hot focacce). The same could not be said for the youngest, arriving at the ditch. “Frog, frog!” he cried. “Who calls?” the frog replied. “Your love who loves you not,” the prince said. “If you love me not,” the frog said, “never mind. Later you shall, when a fine figure I cut,” and then leapt out of the ditch and on to a leaf with a walnut in her mouth.
You will, of course, need more than one walnut for this week’s recipe, a Ligurian salsa that is somewhere between pesto and bread sauce, and gorgeous with pasta, as well as with boiled meat, eggs or vegetables – potatoes, pumpkin or roast leeks, in particular.
So, the bakery girl produced a beautiful thread, but, naturally, the weaver’s daughter’s work looked like silk. Finally, the frog gave the walnut to the king, and everyone sniggered, until the king cracked it open and out rolled cloth as fine as gossamer. But the king refused to accept a frog as a queen and announced another task: each couple was given a puppy, and the one who looked after it best would inherit the kingdom.
A month passed, and the oldest son returned with a mastiff nourished with bread, while the second son brought back a skinny hound. The youngest son and frog, however, presented the king with a small box out of which leapt a poodle, groomed and perfumed (and, I like to think, the colour of walnut sauce), and that marched on its hind legs and counted. And then the frog transformed into a maiden dressed in emerald green (like a bean). It was decided! The youngest son and his bride became king and queen, and lived as you would expect.
Pasta with green beans and walnut sauce
Prep 20 min
Cook 15 min
30g soft white breadcrumbs
100ml whole milk
1 fat garlic clove
200g shelled walnuts
6-8 tbsp olive oil
2 tbsp grated parmesan or grana padano
1 big pinch fresh marjoram or parsley, minced
1 small potato, peeled and diced
450g pasta (eg fusilli, casarecce, linguine)
200g green beans
Bring a pan of water to a boil for the pasta. In a bowl, mix the breadcrumbs and milk, and leave to sit for 10 minutes.
In a blender or mortar, pulse or pound the garlic, salt, walnuts and olive oil to a paste. Add the soaked breadcrumb mixture and the cheese, then pulse or pound again, to make a thick sauce. Taste and add more salt if needed. Scrape the sauce into a big bowl and add the herbs.
Add salt to the boiling water, stir, then add the pasta, potato and beans (if you like your pasta a little less al dente than I do, you may want to add your beans a couple of minutes after the pasta and potatoes).
Once the pasta and beans are done (the potato should have collapsed, which will help with binding the sauce), use a sieve or spider to lift them directly into the sauce bowl, with any residual water clinging to them, and toss. Add a bit more pasta cooking water, if need be: the consistency should be slippy. Serve immediately.