It was one of the first pasta dinners I made after my sister and brother-in-law announced they were going vegan. We were in their kitchen in southern Maine, where I spent last year helping them with their homestead, and I was making a sauce from the best of the early summer produce, right from the huge garden outside.
It was based on the classic French side dish of braised lettuce and peas, but I turned it Italian by tossing it with curly pasta and kept things light with a touch of mint.
As it neared readiness, I realized I needed to make a plea, to ask them to do me one little favor, to make one — OK, two — little exceptions to their diet in service of the dish and its integrity. "Please," I said. "Let me use ricotta salata."
As a pasta purist, however, I knew that there would be no substitute for this dish's crowning touch: the pure-white ricotta salata, with its slight brine and uniquely firm yet slightly spongy texture that makes it perfect for shaving and crumbling onto vegetables that could use a little kick.
Couldn't I shower the dish with those, just this once?
They relented. Actually, it didn't take much convincing. They already had been making exceptions here and there, mostly for eggs, which is what prompted me to coin the term "vague-an."
Pasta With Lettuce, Peas and Ricotta Salata
Servings: 3 or 4
By late spring and early summer, markets are awash in lettuce and peas, and mint is threatening to take over gardens. The common-sense response in the kitchen is to cook that lettuce in the manner of the classic French side dish, quickly braising it with peas and tossing in some of that mint, but making it a meal by turning it into a pasta sauce. A French-Italian hybrid is born. From Washington Post Food editor Joe Yonan, author of the upcoming “Eat Your Vegetables: Bold Recipes for the Single Cook” (Ten Speed Press, August 2013).
Kosher or sea salt
8 ounces dried cavatappi, farfalle or other short pasta
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
1 small onion, thinly sliced
One 8-ounce head romaine lettuce, cored and cut crosswise into thin ribbons
3 cups freshly shelled peas (may substitute frozen/defrosted peas)
4 scallions, trimmed and cut crosswise into thin slices
⅓ cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
¼ cup chopped mint leaves, for garnish
2 ounces ricotta salata, shaved, for garnish (optional; may substitute crumbled feta cheese)
Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil over medium-high heat. Add the pasta and cook according to the package directions, leaving it slightly undercooked (just shy of al dente). Drain, reserving 1 cup of the pasta cooking water.
Pour the oil into a large skillet fitted with a lid, set over medium heat. Once the oil starts to shimmer, add the garlic and onion, cover and cook until tender, about 4 minutes. Stir in the lettuce, peas and scallions; cover and cook until the lettuce has fully wilted, 5 minutes. Season with salt to taste. Reduce the heat to low, keeping the vegetables warm until the pasta is ready.
Uncover the vegetables and pour the pasta into the skillet, tossing it with the vegetables. Add some of the pasta cooking water as needed to moisten the vegetables. Transfer the pasta and vegetable mixture to a large, shallow serving bowl, toss with the Parmigiano-Reggiano, then sprinkle with the mint and ricotta salata, if using. Serve immediately.
Per serving (based on 4): 420 calories, 17 g protein, 62 g carbohydrates, 11 g fat, 3 g saturated fat, 5 mg cholesterol, 210 mg sodium, 9 g dietary fiber, 10 g sugar