Bright green pesto trick: Spaghetti with basil pesto, cherry tomatoes, and ricotta

Though we gotta say goodbye for the summer
Baby I promise you this
I'll send you all my love every day in a letter
Sealed with a kiss
(And I’ll keep a freezer full of pesto for you, too.)

I’m not giving up on summer yet.

First, I’ll make this end of summer pasta. Once I’m on a roll, I’ll make extra pesto to freeze. I know that when I’m oppressed by the gloom of winter, it will be there. Waiting.

With only five ingredients, pesto is simple to make, but as in the case of so many simple dishes, the devil is in the details. In other words, use the best ingredients you can get your hands on. Start with perfect basil leaves, fresh nuts, and Parmesan grated from a block by hand and good-lookin’ garlic. As for that olive oil you’ve been saving for a special occasion, this is the time to use it.

This recipe makes enough for one pound of pasta, but double or triple this batch, omitting the Parmesan, to tuck into zipper bags, squeezing out as much air as possible and freeze. Flatten the package so you can break off as much or as little as you want. (You can also use ice cube trays, but who still has them?) Defrost and whisk well, then stir in the Parmesan.

If you’ve noticed that pesto often turns a disappointing olive green, try this neat little trick to keep it bright. Blanch the leaves in boiling water for a few seconds, then quickly refresh them in an ice water bath, and presto! The boiling water kills the browning enzymes in the leaves, so the color stays bright.

As for cooking the pasta, a few caveats bear repeating. [CAUTION, COOKING LESSON AHEAD] Use abundant water and keep it at a boil. No need to add oil, since the starch from the pasta helps the sauce stick to it. Salt it generously—about 1 tablespoon per quart of water (some Italian cooks say it should be as saline as sea water.) Test for doneness slightly before the recommended cooking time on the package. Al dente, the term Italians use for pasta that is ready, means it is done but slightly chewy in the center when you bite a strand. Before draining, dip a measuring cup into the cooking water to remove some.

Dress the pasta with pesto and a little cooking water, then add ripe cherry tomatoes, and creamy ricotta.

Spaghetti with basil pesto, cherry tomatoes, and ricotta
Serves 4

3 tablespoons pine nuts
2 packed cups basil leaves
1 clove garlic, finely chopped or passed through a garlic press
1/3 cup olive oil
1/3 cup freshly grated Parmesan
Salt, to taste

1. Set the oven at 350 degrees. Have a large pasta serving bowl on hand.

2. On a pie pan, spread the pine nuts. Toast for 7 to 8 minutes, or until pale golden.

3. Bring a large pot of water to a boil (you will also cook the pasta in it.) Set a bowl of ice water next to it. Have a slotted spoon on hand.

4. In the boiling water, dunk the basil leaves, pushing them down to submerge them. After 3 seconds, with a slotted spoon transfer them to the ice water. Drain and squeeze out excess water with your hands. Leave the pot on low heat for cooking the pasta.

5. In a blender, finely grind the nuts in short bursts. Add the basil, garlic, oil, and Parmesan. Blend until the mixture is coarsely pureed, stopping the motor often to push the mixture down around the blade. Taste and add salt to taste. Scrape the pesto into a serving bowl.

1 pound spaghetti
1 pint cherry tomatoes, halved and sprinkled with salt and pepper
1 cup whole-milk ricotta

1. Return the pot of water to a rolling boil. Add a generous amount of salt. Add the spaghetti and stir to separate the strands. Cook at a boil for 8 minutes, or until al dente. The pasta will continue to cook a little after it is drained. Scoop out and set aside 1/2 cup pasta water.

2. In a colander, drain the spaghetti.

3. Stir a small amount of the hot pasta water into the pesto to loosen it to a slurry consistency. Add the pasta and toss to coat it. Add half the tomatoes and toss with the pasta. Taste and add more salt, if you like. Distribute the remaining tomatoes and spoonfuls of ricotta on top.

Posted on September 6, 2015 .