One of the tastiest things I ate this year was ricotta cheese still warm, right next to the fire, on a farm in Sicily.
I scooped up some of the wobbly white lump on my plate, seasoned it with coarse salt, and used a spoon to catch every drop, preventing myself from licking the plate. This ethereal ricotta also appeared in the following dish as a pasta topping. It was mixed with starchy cooking water to create a bubbling, creamy sauce enriched with olive oil, seasoned with Parmesan cheese and topped with a mound of wild herbs just picked from the garden.
Meals like this are, of course, impossible to replicate: a sublime holiday moment that cannot be transferred to everyday life. But that doesn’t mean I can’t make pasta soup with fresh ricotta and lots of herbs, and enjoy it almost as much at home.
One thing I won’t be able to do, however, is use still hot ricotta straight from a farm. But tubs of milky fresh ricotta are available at my local supermarket, and these do the job wonderfully.
This is one of those extremely simple recipes with just a few ingredients and not much technique, so it’s worth looking for the good stuff here – it should say “fresh” on the label and will probably be more expensive than ricotta standard. If you cook this with dull ricotta and indifferent olive oil, you probably won’t be very impressed with the result.
But if you use the milkiest, silkiest ricotta you can get and whip out an olive oil with personality and zip, you’ll end up with a memorable dinner that’s so easy it’s made. almost alone.
Also, don’t skimp on the herbs; try to use at least three sorts for the most complex result. Soft herbs with soft leaves – parsley, basil, cilantro, mint, dill, chives, fennel leaves, lovage, even celery leaves – work well and won’t leave you chewing on twig stalks. But if you want to use additional thyme, rosemary or marjoram, you can do so in small amounts (be sure to remove the leaves from their branches first).
Finally, sprinkle everything with plenty of coarsely ground black pepper. It’s an invigorating final touch and a spicy contrast to all the sweet, supple flavors already in your bowl.
Creamy pasta with ricotta and herbs
Total duration: 20 minutes
Yield: 4 servings
1 pound short pasta, such as shellfish, cavatappi, chiocciole, farfalle, ditali, or wagon wheels
12 ounces fresh whole milk ricotta (about 1 1/2 cups)
3/4 cup freshly grated parmesan cheese, plus more for serving
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil, plus more for serving
1 tbsp coarsely ground black pepper, plus more for serving
2 1/2 cups coarsely chopped sweet herbs, such as basil, chives, fennel leaves, parsley, mint, tarragon, chervil or dill (try a combination of at least 3 kinds)
1. Bring a large pot of well salted water to a boil over high heat. Add pasta and cook until al dente, according to package directions. Reserve 2 cups of the pasta cooking water, then drain the pasta.
2. In the same pot, prepare the sauce: add the ricotta, parmesan, olive oil, pepper and a big pinch or two of salt, and stir until well combined.
3. Add 1 cup pasta water to sauce and stir until smooth. Add the pasta and herbs, and continue to stir vigorously until the noodles are well coated. Add more pasta water as needed for a smooth, creamy sauce. Taste and add more salt if needed.
4. To serve, ladle the pasta into bowls and finish with more Parmesan cheese, olive oil and pepper.