A scene from Miseria e Nobiltà, starring the legendary Totò.
Recipe: Casarecci with Asparagus, Ricotta, Anchovy, and Basil
Since making my asparagus and ricotta tart last week, I can’t get its just about perfect flavor combination out of my mind. It reminds me of one of the dishes I used to make at my first apartment, on University Place, several centuries ago, a studio near New York University, where I was supposed to be attending journalism school. It was the time of my blossoming love affair with Italian food, but I didn’t yet really know what I was doing in the kitchen, and I had next to no money. And to make things even more confused, more often than not there were various people, usually some actual friends, who hung around my small place, passed out on the floor, stuffed into my twin bed, rifled through my meager closet looking for something to wear for a night of clubbing. Someone always seemed to have locked themselves in the bathroom, doing God knows what. Well I certainly had to feed them. Pasta was the most reasonable choice.
Penne with frozen peas, cream, and Boar’s Head salami was a standby. Sometimes I’d substitute Boar’s Head prosciutto, if I had a few extra bucks. This dish wasn’t really very good, but it was filling. I did many variations on pasta puttanesca, usually either with canned tomatoes, capers, and anchovies, or with canned tuna, olives, dried oregano, and way too much garlic (it takes practice to develop a nuanced approach to garlic). These improvisations were generally more successful than my cream-based ones, so puttanesca became my signature dish, and it was demanded by my transient group. I’d cook up several pounds at a time, toss the whole thing in a restaurant bus bucket, and serve it trough-style, so anyone who happened to be hanging around could just dig in. I did, I think, own several dishes, but I could never find them when I needed them. Everyone seemed to wind up at my house after a night of doing whatever. They knew I’d have food. It felt like a transgender commune, or the St. Vincent’s triage center, depending on the group. Whatever it was, these people were always hungry.
At some point after I officially dropped out of college I hosted an unruly Italian language class at my apartment, usually about eight people at a time (a friend of mine who spoke decent Italian offered to teach this because she craved attention and loved to boss people around). After class I made pasta. People brought Gallo Hearty Burgundy, Champale (I swear), Harvey’s Bristol Cream, Gorilla brand Anisette (maybe the foulest liqueur ever produced). We’d play Louis Prima and John Cale, and I’d cook up a big bucket of some pasta concoction (I think I may have even gotten plates together by that time). Penne with broccoli rabe and canned sardines was definitely a low point.
As I honed my skills, my pasta dishes became a bit more sophisticated. One dish I started improvising with was pasta with ricotta (something my mother used to make and I always loved), with various add-ons. Pasta with ricotta and asparagus was one of the creations that came out of this time period, and it was heaven. I haven’t made it in a while, but I cooked up a version last night, and I’m glad I did.
Of course now I use homemade (or good Italian shop–made) ricotta and fancy olive oil. Being a snob makes such a difference in the quality of your finished dish. I’ve added lemon zest and a splash of white wine to wake things up. Garlic and anchovy add backbone. I’ve found that lots of freshly ground black pepper is essential to elevate the ricotta base to support a sophisticated whole. This is still, even with all my haughty flourishes, a simple, inexpensive meal, but it’s one with great taste, both creamy and fresh at the same time. It’s the essence of springtime, and it’s still great for an impromptu get-together.
Casarecci with Asparagus, Ricotta, Anchovy, and Basil
I’ve chosen casarecci, a thin, rolled tube-shaped pasta from Puglia, for this recipe. I like the way the ricotta gets caught up in its grooves. Benedetto Cavalieri, an artisanal pastamaker from Puglia, makes an excellent one. You can substitute other short twisted or rolled shapes, such as cavatelli or gemelli, if you like.
(Serves 6 as a first course)
1 large bunch medium thick asparagus (about 2 dozen), peeled and cut on an angle into sections
1 cup whole milk ricotta
¼ cup whole milk, warm if possible
4 anchovy fillets, minced
The grated zest from 1 small lemon zest
⅛ teaspoon grated nutmeg
Freshly ground black pepper
Grated pecorino Toscana cheese
1 pound casarecci pasta
Extra-virgin olive oil
2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
¼ cup dry white wine
A handful of basil, cut into chiffonade
Set up a large pot of pasta cooking water, and bring it to a boil. Add the asparagus, and blanch for 2 minutes. Scoop it from the water with a large strainer spoon, and run it under cold water to stop the cooking and set its green color. Drain well.
Choose a large, nice-looking pasta serving bowl, and keep it warm. Add the ricotta, anchovies, milk, lemon zest, nutmeg, salt, freshly ground black pepper, about 3 tablespoons of the grated Pecorino Toscana, and a generous drizzle of olive oil. Mix well.
Bring the pasta water back to a boil, and add a generous amount of salt. Drop in the casarecci.
In a large skillet, heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil over medium heat. Add the garlic, and let it sauté for about 30 seconds. Add the blanched asparagus, season with salt and black pepper, and sauté about a minute or so. Add the white wine, and let it bubble for a few seconds. Don’t bubble it dry, though. You should have some liquid left in the skillet.
When the pasta is al dente, drain it, saving about a cup of the cooking water. Pour the pasta into the serving bowl, and toss well to cover it with the ricotta mixture. Add the asparagus, with all the skillet juices. Scatter on the basil, and toss gently. The texture should be creamy. If it seems too dry, add a little pasta cooking water. Taste for seasoning, and add more salt and black pepper if needed. Serve right away, with more pecorino Toscana brought to the table if desired.