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Pasta is comfort food in a bowl: a good sauce paired with any type of noodle and instantly we feel cozy and happy. The problem is that many pasta dishes lack flavor. The ones that do can take hours to make. Don’t get me wrong – I love a good cooking project. But most nights, getting together a meal needs to take less than an hour.
So this pasta dish is my favorite type of hack. And to make it even quicker, prepared pesto is the underlying hero. Bulked up with peas, the sauce tastes like it took a lot of prep work. Instead, it takes just a few minutes for a pasta dish packed with that elusive flavor.
What is orecchiette?
Orecchiette translates to little ears. This pasta is shaped like a small, round cup, which must have reminded its creators of a little ear. The edges are rolled and slightly thicker than the middle of the pasta. The thicker edges create a unique texture that’s heftier than most other kinds of pasta.
The best part of orecchiette is the fact that so much sauce can be held within a single cup. Traditionally, this pasta is served with a chunky, thick sauce, which makes complete sense as something bold is needed to make sure it’s heard. In this recipe, the peas and pesto create that necessary thick sauce. Once blended together, the pesto mixture becomes caught in the cups of the pasta and each bite is the perfect ratio of sauce to pasta.
What is pesto?
Pesto hails from Italy and uses fresh ingredients that are crushed together to form a sauce. Usually, the ingredients create a bright green sauce from the fresh basil, mixed with Parmesan cheese and nuts. Pesto is the perfect sauce, it has bright flavors of basil balanced with umami-rich Parmesan and fatty nuts.
And while the flavors of pesto generally come from herbs that grow during the summer, I always freeze pesto during these months so I have fresh-tasting pesto throughout the year.
To add more seasonal green and lend some sweetness, peas made the perfect companion to the traditional pesto. The peas balance out the bold pesto and enrich the sauce. Fresh peas are perfect, but frozen peas are just as good and taste amazing. A quick blanch in the pasta water and the frozen peas are ready to blend with the pesto.
Why save pasta water?
You always see recipes that say cook the pasta al dente and save some pasta cooking water. This is an important step. The water should be well seasoned before the pasta is added, and after the orecchiette cooks, it has a lot of starch from the pasta. Reserving some of the water and adding it with the pea pesto sauce to the cooked pasta finishes the sauce.
By itself, the sauce can be thick and doesn’t mix well with the pasta. But with the addition of some of the reserved water, the sauce becomes starchy and adheres to the pasta. Instead of a gloppy pasta, the water makes it the perfect consistency and ready to serve.
Watch how to make this orecchiette recipe:
Orecchiette with Pea Pesto Sauce
- 12 oz asparagus cleaned and trimmed
- ½ tbsp olive oil
- 3 oz prosciutto
- 1 lb orecchiette
- 1 ½ cup peas frozen or thawed
- 1 cup prepared pesto
- 2 tsp lemon zest
- 2 oz Parmesan cheese grated
- 6 leaves fresh basil torn
For the asparagus
- Preheat oven to 375°F.
- Cut asparagus into bite-size pieces, approximately each spear in thirds. Spread on a baking sheet in an even layer. Drizzle with olive oil and place pieces of prosciutto over the top. Roast in the oven until the asparagus is crisp-tender and the prosciutto is crispy, 12-15 minutes.
- Remove from oven and set aside until pasta is prepared.
For the pasta
- In an 8-quart stockpot, bring 4 quarts of water to a boil. Add 1 ½ tbsp salt. Pour in the pasta and return to a low boil. Cook until the pasta is al dente, 10-12 minutes.
- Once cooked, reserve 1 cup of the cooking water and drain the pasta. Return to the stockpot and add the sauce (see below) and lemon zest. Stir to combine, adding reserved cooking water 1 tbsp at a time to achieve the desired texture. Add prepared asparagus and prosciutto. Top with fresh parmesan and basil.
For the sauce
- While the pasta is cooking, prepare the sauce. Warm the peas with the pasta or in a separate saucepan. Cook the peas in boiling water for 1 minute. Remove from water and combine with the pesto. Blend the pesto and peas together using an immersion blender or countertop blender.