After a long winter, the arrival of early spring, humid and cool as it may be, is always welcome. Especially this year, because warmer weather on the horizon promises a recovery after another pandemic winter. What better way to celebrate the joy of spring than with a pasta that is bursting with the bright, crisp flavors of early spring vegetables?
This recipe for spring orecchiette with lemon and ricotta is simple and lets the stars of the dish – leeks, asparagus, peas and spinach – take center stage. The vegetables are lightly sautéed in olive oil and then cooked in white wine before tossing with the pasta. The dish is finished with parmesan cheese and a large pinch of lemon juice, which adds a little salty and acidic flavor to the pasta to bring out the fresh, earthy taste of the vegetables. Finally, a dash of fresh ricotta seasoned with lemon peel and black pepper adds richness and makes this dish a festive dish. And any leftover ricotta would be wonderfully spread out on a toasted bruschetta and topped with sautéed vegetables.
While this recipe is delicious as written, it can also be adapted to use any green vegetable that is in season. Fiddleheads, the curly fronds of young ferns harvested in spring, would be particularly special instead of asparagus. And if you’re lucky enough to find green onions or ramps, try these instead of or in addition to leeks.
Serve the pasta alone in shallow bowls or next to a simply roasted chicken with a chilled bottle of Bourgogne Aligoté.
Spring orecchiette with lemon and ricotta
- 1 ¼ cups fresh ricotta cheese (about 12 ounces)
- Zest and juice of one lemon
- Kosher salt and black pepper
- 1 pound of dried orecchiette pasta
- 5 ounces of fresh spinach or baby spinach
- 3 tablespoons of olive oil
- 2 large leeks, trimmed
- 1 cup frozen or peeled fresh green peas
- 1 pound asparagus, trimmed
- ¾ cup of dry white wine
- 2 tablespoons of unsalted butter
- 1/3 cup of grated parmesan cheese, plus more for serving
- Chopped fresh mint for serving
Step 1: In a medium bowl, mix the ricotta, lemon zest and ¼ teaspoon salt and mix gently. Put aside.
Step 2: bring a large saucepan of salted water to a boil. Cook the pasta until al dente, save 1 cup of pasta water, drain and set aside.
Step 3: In the meantime, prepare the vegetables. Halve the leek lengthways, leave the roots intact and then cut across into thin slices. Place the sliced leek in a large bowl of cold water to remove sand. Then, use a slotted spoon to lift the leeks out of the water and set aside. Carefully cut the asparagus spears in half lengthwise, then cut them across into 1-inch pieces.
Step 4: In a large, deep-sided pan, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat. Add the leek and cook, stirring occasionally, for 6 to 8 minutes until translucent. Add the asparagus and cook, stirring occasionally, for 4 to 6 minutes until tender. Add the peas, ¾ teaspoon salt and ¼ teaspoon pepper and mix well.
Step 5: add the wine and cook, scraping any brown pieces from the bottom of the pan, until the liquid has almost completely evaporated. Add the spinach in handfuls, tossing frequently and cooking over medium heat until all of the greens are wilted.
Step 6: Put the cooked pasta and the reserved pasta water in the pan and cook over low heat, stirring frequently until the sauce comes together, about 2 minutes. Or if your pan is too small to hold the pasta and sauce, you can toss it all together in the pasta pot.
Step 7: Turn off the heating, stir in the butter and lemon juice, then stir in the parmesan. Add salt and black pepper to taste. Serve in shallow bowls with a generous scoop of ricotta and a pinch of fresh mint.