The base of this dish is spring vegetables cooked slowly alongside garlic and basil in olive oil. From here you can take this recipe any way you like – it also makes an excellent side dish. But of course I would make a pasta. It is so fresh, it is hard to beat, even though I say that about everything. Yet on a warm day, when high clouds drift over chimney pots and disappear at a glance to reveal clear spring skies, this is exactly what you want to cook and more so, what you want to eat.
Sea salt flakes
Softening the vegetables
What you are doing here is slowly imparting flavour into the vegetables, which takes around thirty minutes. I use a bashed clove of garlic, a good pinch of sea salt flakes and approximately 6 individual basil leaves. Turn a pan on medium heat and add a good splash of olive oil. Into this, add the garlic clove, sliced courgette and asparagus spears, each cut into about 4 pieces. Sprinkle the basil leaves over along with the sea salt and stir. A fine grating of nutmeg is also delicious here. Turn the heat down to the lowest setting and just let the mix cook together until the courgettes are soft, even starting to turn to mush, and the garlic has had a chance to soften to the point where you can smash it up with your wooden spoon and distribute through the vegetables. Once they are cooked, you’ll be left with vegetables intensified in flavour and infused with the perfume of basil and roasted garlic. Also a kitchen that smells the same, never a bad thing. I always make this dish in spring – sometimes adding peas too, better still, the pea shoots if can get your hands on them.
Preparing the pasta
I serve a fat spaghetti with the vegetables – spaghettoni – but you can use regular spaghetti, it is just as good. I cook it in boiling salted water until it is soft yet still firm to the bite, then using tongs, lift it across into the pan with the vegetables. If some of the pasta water falls into the pan, excellent, because you are now going to stir everything together over heat along with some finely grated parmesan cheese. What will happen is that water and the parmesan creates a light emulsification and the more pasta water and cheese you add, the creamier your finished pasta is going to be. Have a ladle on hand for quickly adding small amounts of water from the pot so you don’t lose the heat in the pan. Grate more parmesan over the pasta and you could happily serve this now. But it’s better if you crumble ricotta on top, which adds freshness and seems to make the pasta come alive. Ricotta has a lightness that perfectly partners these green vegetables, always at their sweetest in spring. I also love how the spongy ricotta catches pools of my best olive oil, the Umbrian one I brought in Montefalco last year, still heavily rationed and only taken directly from the tin, never, ever cooked with! I am told heat destroys the flavour.
If you have gone this far, you may as well take lunch to the next level by tearing slices of prosciutto in two and arranging them in rounds over the top. It certainly looks more impressive this way. And the extra saltiness complements the subtle flavour of the ricotta.