Recipe: Linguine with Lemon Zest, Olive Oil, and Black Pepper
C’era una volta in the 1980s, you couldn’t go to Rome without encountering a pasta made with lemon zest, tons of cream, and Parmigiano Reggiano. As fragrant and unusual as this dish was, for me, a little went a long way, and after eating it several times, I realized I didn’t like it anymore. I’m never crazy about cream in pasta, so even with all the lemoniness, it became for me a gagger.
But looking through my friend Natalia Ravidà’s book Seasons of Sicily, a personal collection of family recipes, I came upon a lemon pasta made with olive oil instead of cream. Now we’re cooking with gas, I thought. I made the dish her way and didn’t get enough lemon flavor and immediately understood the problem; she was working with Sicilian lemons, which have intense oily skin. One big Sicilian lemon seems to be about equivalent in strength to three or four of ours, so I had to do some tinkering to make this New York–friendly, including adding lemon juice to boost the flavor and throwing in toasted almonds for texture (almond and lemon are a time-honored Sicilian combination I can never resist). I used organic lemons, which aren’t coated with wax or sprayed, which is something to consider when you’re using mainly the zest. The black pepper is a key to the success of this pasta, deepening the lemon taste and making the whole more savory and full.
The ingredient that makes this perfect winter dish possible is olive oil. It disperses and releases the essence of the lemon zest to coat every stand of pasta with fragrance. Use the best you’ve got. My choice would be Natalia’s family oil, Ravidà.
And for your lemon-scented listening pleasure, here’s Paolo Conte:
Linguine with Lemon Zest, Olive Oil, and Black Pepper
(Serves 6 as a first course)
4 large organic lemons
A pinch of sugar
Extra-virgin olive oil
A few big scrapings of nutmeg
1 pound linguine or spaghetti
Freshly ground black pepper
A handful of flat leaf parsley, the leaves lightly chopped
A small chunk of Parmigiano Reggiano cheese
A big handful of blanched almonds, toasted and well chopped
Zest the lemon, being careful not to pull up any of the bitter white pith. Pour about ⅓ cup of olive oil into a warmed pasta serving bowl, and add the lemon zest and nutmeg, and squeeze in about a tablespoon of lemon juice. Add the sugar and a little salt (just a touch). Let sit for about 30 minutes or so, to develop flavor.
Set up a pot of pasta cooking water, and bring it to a boil. Add a generous amount of salt.
Drop in the linguine.
When the linguine is al dente, drain it, saving about ½ cup of the cooking water.
Add the linguine to the serving bowl, and give it a good toss. Add a few tablespoons of the cooking water, a generous amount of freshly ground black pepper, the parsley, and about 3 tablespoons of grated Parmigiano. Toss again, adding a little more cooking water if necessary to loosen the sauce. Garnish with the toasted almonds. Serve right away.