by Diane Rossen Worthington
Spring is the peak season for asparagus. I love to use it in dishes that show off its unique flavor. The neutrality of pasta provides a perfect backdrop for the delicate, slightly sweet yet grassy flavor to shine through.
Select asparagus that has bright green stalks and tight tips. Look for young pencil-thin ones so you won't have to bother peeling each stalk. (This really cuts down on your preparation time.) Just cut or snap off the tough bottoms and then cut the stalks into 2-inch pieces, making sure to keep the whole tip as one piece.
The fresh whole-milk ricotta cheese is the base of the sauce that gives the dish a rich underlying flavor. A helpful trick I use when making pasta is to add a bit of the pasta cooking water to the sauce to control the thickness without adding extra calories. Another tip for cooking pasta is to combine the cooked, drained pasta in the sauce and heat together for a minute to marry the flavors. That allows all of the ingredients to blend together.
Orecchiette, Italian for "little ears," are just the right shape for this dish. You can also use penne, fusilli or bow-tie pasta for a similar result. This creamy sauce, delicate yet packed with garlic and crushed red pepper essence and an undertone of zesty lemon, is sure to be a favorite for the most demanding pasta lover. The dish makes a lovely Sunday supper or Saturday brunch. Begin with a mixed green salad and serve simple biscotti and sorbet for dessert. Now that's what I call a Seriously Simple menu.
If you have vegetarian guests, this dish is good without the prosciutto. I like to add mixed red, orange and yellow teardrop tomatoes to the sauce to brighten up the color and the flavors of the pasta.
Pasta with Asparagus, Ricotta and Prosciutto Recipe
1 pound orecchiette, penne, fusilli or bow-tie pasta
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 pound thin asparagus, trimmed and cut into 2-inch pieces
5 garlic cloves, minced
1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes, or to taste
1/2 cup chicken or vegetable stock
1 cup low-fat ricotta cheese
Zest of 1 lemon
3 ounces chopped prosciutto
12 teardrop tomatoes, halved, optional
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Grated Parmesan cheese, for serving
1. Bring a large pot of salted boiling water to a boil. Add the pasta and cook until al dente.
2. While the pasta is cooking, make the sauce: In a large, deep skillet, heat the olive oil on medium-high heat. Add the asparagus and sauté, tossing with tongs, for about 3 minutes or until slightly softened. Add the garlic and red pepper flakes and cook only a minute, making sure the garlic does not burn. Lower the heat and add the ricotta, lemon zest, prosciutto and tomatoes (if using), and mix to combine completely. Season with salt and pepper. Taste for seasoning.
3. When the pasta is cooked, drain, reserving a half of a cup of cooking water. Add the pasta to the ricotta mixture. If it is too dry, add a bit of the pasta cooking water to moisten. Mix to combine. Cook for a minute on low heat. Serve in shallow pasta bowls and pass Parmesan cheese, if desired.
Pasta Recipe, Italian Cuisine