- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Springtime signals 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 that allows the delicate, slightly sweet, yet grassy-flavored asparagus to shine through.

Select asparagus with bright green stalks and tight tips. Look for young, pencil-thin specimens so you won’t have to peel 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.

Pasta dishes usually have a sauce to bind the ingredients. Here I have used creamy ricotta cheese to act as the base for the sauce. Look for a whole-milk ricotta that will give the dish a rich underlying flavor.

A trick I use when making pasta is to add a bit of the pasta cooking water to the sauce to control the thickness of the sauce without adding calories.

Another tip for cooking pasta is to combine the cooked, drained pasta in the sauce and heat for a minute to marry the flavors.

Orecchiette — which means “little ears” in Italian — is just the right shape pasta for this dish. You also can use penne 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 of 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.

Help is on the way: Don’t make this just a spring dish: In autumn, use peeled and cubed butternut squash; in winter, try broccoli and mushrooms; and in summer, mixed red, orange and yellow teardrop tomatoes blend wonderfully with all types of pasta.

If you or any of your guests are committed vegetarians, simply omit the prosciutto.

Orecchiette with asparagus, ricotta and prosciutto

Water

Salt

1 pound orecchiette

SAUCE:

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 pound thin asparagus, trimmed and cut into 2-inch pieces

5 garlic cloves, minced

½ teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes, or to taste

½ cup chicken or vegetable stock

1 cup low-fat ricotta cheese

Zest of 1 lemon

3 ounces chopped prosciutto

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Grated Parmesan cheese, for serving

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add the pasta and cook until al dente.

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 saute, 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 broth, ricotta, lemon zest and prosciutto, and mix to combine completely. Season with salt and pepper.

Taste for seasoning.

When the pasta is cooked, drain, reserving a half 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. Makes 4 to 6 servings.

Diane Rossen Worthington is the author of 18 cookbooks, including “Seriously Simple.” To contact her, go to www.seriouslysimple.com.

TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES

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