Ricotta Revisited: Part 2, The Pasta Sauce

As-easy-as-it-gets penne with ricotta sauce.

You know how you always seem to have leftover hot dog buns after cooking hot dogs, and leftover hamburger buns after grilling burgers?

Somehow, I always seem to have leftover ricotta after baking, too.

My new favorite repository for excess ricotta is Mark Bittman’s mind-blowingly easy “Penne with Ricotta, Parmesan, and Peas.” It’s from his classic book, “How to Cook Everything” (Wiley).

It’s so easy that you can make it blind-folded, while chewing gum, reciting the alphabet backwards, and patting your stomach in counter-clockwise strokes as you balance on one leg.

OK, maybe not that easy. But almost.

As you cook your penne or ziti in a pot of boiling water, you stick a heat-proof bowl over the top of the pot, and stir up the ricotta, Parmesan, and butter in it to create a smooth, creamy sauce. When the pasta is al dente, you reserve a cup or so of the starchy pasta water, then drain the rest. Toss the warm pasta with peas, and the sauce that’s been thinned with some of the pasta water. That’s it.

In 15 minutes tops, you have dinner. How great is that?

I like to gild the lily by adding crumbled crispy bacon bits or some chopped ham to the dish, too. I like how the smokiness adds more complexity to the dish. Bittman suggests mushrooms as another possible addition.

This is not a big, bold, robust pasta dish that assaults the senses. Rather, it’s quietly comforting. It’s all about the welcome, mild creaminess that goes down so easily.

Penne with Ricotta, Parmesan, and Peas

(makes about 4 servings)

1 cup freshly shelled or frozen peas

1 pound penne, ziti, or other cut pasta

About 1 cup fresh ricotta, available in Italian and specialty food markets

1 tablespoon softened butter (optional)

1 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Cooked mushrooms, crispy crumbled bacon bits, or chopped ham (optional)

Bring a large pot of water to a boil.

Cook peas in boiling salted water to cover, just until tender, about 3 minutes. Drain and rinse in cold water to stop the cooking; drain and set aside. (An easy tip: I stick my frozen peas in a large sieve, dunk it gently in my pot of water for a few seconds, then lift the sieve to drain the peas.)

Salt the boiling water and cook the pasta. While it is cooking, mix together ricotta, butter, and half of the Parmesan in the bottom of a heat-proof bowl that’s large enough to sit on top of the pasta pot without falling in. Stick the bowl on top of the pot for a few minutes, while stirring the cheese-butter mixture until it is warm and smooth. Remove bowl and set aside.

When the pasta is just about done, remove about a cup and a half of pasta cooking water. Mix about 3/4 cup of it into your cheese sauce to thin it a little.

Drain pasta. Toss with ricotta mixture, add additional pasta cooking water if necessary. Season with salt and pepper. Stir in mushrooms,Β  ham or bacon, if using any of them. Serve, passing remaining Parmesan at the table.

Adapted from “How to Cook Everything”

More ricotta recipes: Lemon Ricotta Muffins; Ricotta Biscuits with Dried Cherries, Apricots & Raspberries; Ricotta Pound Cake.

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