Every time I make this pasta dish, which is really a more elaborate version of macaroni and cheese with a veggie thrown in for a ‘green eggs and ham’-like vibe, I think back to my days in New York.
That’s because I first tasted this asparagus-laced pasta at a small, rustic restaurant off of 2nd Avenue and 5th Street in the East Village called Cremecaffe. My roommate Fabio and I quickly became the ‘Norm and Cliff’ patrons of Cheers-inspired lore. From the moment we walked into the place in 1993, it became our second home…and not just because we were graduate students and Cremecaffe’s prices worked well with our very light wallets, but because of the rich and intoxicating aromas emanating from the place. Something good was clearly happening in that kitchen. And they proved this to be the case with each and every main or second course we ordered.
We ignored the initially sparse decor of white, unadorned walls and simple table and chairs, and just focused on the food, the aromas and the pleasant personalities of the family that ran the joint.
Best of all, their coffee was remarkable. Yes. my roommate and I also knew we had found a real culinary keeper the moment we sipped their first espresso. It was rich and aromatic and strong, but not bitter. I ordered mine corretto (with a little added Grappa liquor) and flashed back for a second to my parents’ living room, where my father and I shared countless of these warming, soothing caffe. Yes, considering my dad’s fastidiousness (just to give you an idea, he grinds his own beans right before making the coffee with his mom’s antique coffee grinder…) about his daily caffe corretto, It was THAT good.
I have this theory, you see, that highly correlates the quality of a restaurant with the deliciousness of the coffee it offers. I have gone to highly rated eateries that offered dirty dish wash at the end of an otherwise fine meal. If that gets past the owner or chef, what else is not happening in that kitchen, it makes me wonder. You might call it a pet peeve of mine, I suppose, but it just doesn’t rub me the right way.
Coffee is one of those basic staples that any restaurant that takes itself seriously needs to nail. Amen.
Well, that’s my take on it, anyway.
As I got to know the owners, the mom and dad in particular, of this family-owned business (the son was too busy trotting off on his Harley with his cute girlfriend to talk much to the patrons), I subsequently found out that they were also running a coffee import-export business. Not surprising at all. They knew what they were doing. All around. I truly hope they are doing famously, wherever they are and whatever they are doing.
But getting back to this creamy asparagus-inspired pasta dish…
I remembering ordering it as a special on one fine Spring day (the owner was undoubtedly taking advantage of the season’s abundant crop of fresh, luscious spears) and being so taken with it that I requested to speak with the owner, who was also the cook. After complimenting him on its flavor and texture, I asked him if he would be willing to share the recipe with me. He smiled and rattled off the ingredients and directions so graciously and generously and QUICKLY that I made it the very next day, afraid that some detail would get forever lodged in some dusty corner of my mind. Turns out he was an excellent recipe sharer and I was a modest executor on those directions, which is why I can now happily pay-forward all of you with this little gem. My only change has been to add a little lemon zest to the ricotta, which brightens the flavor even more, and to add the ricotta on top of the prepared pasta plate, as opposed to having the ricotta mixed into the puree from the get-go.
making pasta with asparagus & ricotta
Wash 2 bunches of thin or medium-sized asparagus (about 2 lbs.) under cool running water.
Individually bend the asparagus to snap them at the point in which the spear goes from tender to tough. It usually means you lose about 1/3 of the spear, which seems sad except that it’s tough and woodsy and no fun to eat at all.
Lay the trimmed asparagus in a shallow microwave-friendly bowl (I use a Pyrex pie pan). Add 1 tablespoon of water.
Cover the dish with plastic wrap, leaving a small section loose to allow steam to escape.
Microwave for 3 minutes (the formula is to nuke asparagus at 1 minute per pound if you like them to have a nice snap when you eat them. For this pasta sauce, I need them nice and soft, so I cook them a little longer).
Once they have finished cooking, immediately place them in a colander and rinse them in cold water or immerse them in a bowl filled with ice water. If you don’t do this, the asparagus will continue to cook in their own heat and steam, turning mushy and an unappealing shade of gray-green. Yuck…
Cut off the asparagus tips.
and set them aside.
Place the remainder of the cooked spears, cut into half or thirds, in a food processor with 5 tablespoons of water.
and puree thoroughly. You can do this in a food processor, like I’ve done, but also a blender. If all you have is an immersion blender, just put the asparagus pieces into a small pot and go to town. There are many ways to skin a cat, so to speak…
In a small, microwave-friendly bowl, add 2 cups of whole-milk ricotta, the zest of half a lemon, 1 tablespoon of extra virgin olive oil, and a couple pinches of Kosher or sea salt. Mix well and set aside.
To a 10-inch skillet add 2 tablespoons of unsalted butter. Melt on medium-high heat and wait until the butter has stopped bubbling, then add the asparagus tips.
Cook for 2 minutes, adding Kosher or sea salt and fresh-cracked pepper, until they develop a nice golden-ish color.
Remove them from the pan using a slotted spoon, to ensure the condiment stays in the skillet. Place the tips in a warmed bowl and tent them with aluminum foil to keep them warm. Now add 3 more tablespoons of unsalted butter and allow to melt and bubble and then add the asparagus puree, along with a couple more pinches of Kosher or sea salt, to the skillet and cook for 3 minutes or so, or until the puree starts bubbling.
In the meantime, bring a large pot of water to a boil and add a handful of Kosher salt to the water. Add 300 grams of the pasta of your choice (about ¾ of a 1 lb. box) and mix for the first minute or so of its cooking time, which will prevent the pasta from sticking without needing to use oil. Follow the pasta manufacturer’s instruction for cooking time, making sure to test that pasta in the last minute or two to prevent it from overcooking and turning mushy. Drain immediately and thoroughly. Add the cooked pasta to the asparagus puree.
Mix well. Place the ricotta mixture in the microwave and heat for 1 minute until it is warm. Mix it with a spoon to make sure it is uniformly warm.
Spoon out the pasta into individual bowls and top each one with a half cup of the warmed ricotta mixture. Divvy out the cooked spears among the four bowls, arranging them nicely on top and around the ricotta, and serve immediately. Add a sprinkling of Parmigiano-Reggiano. Makes 4 servings.