taleggio and asparagus pasta

bowl of tossed taleggio/asparagus pasta

Since Passover is now done with, we can get back to simple recipes to sustain you through self-isolation time. We're back with more "hot pasta tossed with stuff" this week, with a decidedly springtime twist.

Now, our last "tossed hot pasta" recipe was hot pasta & eggs. But "hot pasta & cheese" is also a big thing, as I'll show you. Overall, I can't overemphasize how useful it is to master the basic tossed hot pasta technique for being able to turn out a variety of tasty meals, with minimal ingredients, in a really short time.

There are four tricks to good hot tossed pasta recipes:

  1. Use a large, insulating bowl (ceramic, glass or wood) at room temperature;
  2. Make sure non-pasta ingredients are at room temperature or slightly warm;
  3. Reserve some pasta water and use it later;
  4. Get the pasta from boiling water into the bowl of ingredients quickly and toss vigorously.

This particular recipe has only six ingredients, including salt. That does mean, though, that you have to pay some attention to the ingredients.

First, like for other simple pasta recipes, buying somewhat better dried pasta pays off here. Even major supermarkets carry "bronze die" or other higher end pastas these days, and it's worth the extra $1 to $3 to get those for one of these simple recipes. For this one, we want a short, stubby pasta. I used strozzapreti (literally "priest stranglers"), but penne, fusilli, gemelli, or any short, straight, and not too big pasta shape will work here.

Second, the cheese I used is taleggio, which is a very soft and gooey, but pungent Italian cheese. There are a number of cheeses you could substitute, including robiola, cresenza, and teleme, or fancy gooey American cheeses like Red Hawk or Harbison. The key is that the cheese needs to be very soft, very moist, and yet have a pungent flavor, becuase there's not a lot of other seasoning in the recipe. Despite the similarity of texture, though, brie and camembert will not work -- they're too "chalky".

As a variant on this recipe, though, you could use chevre instead of the gooey cheese. I've done that before and it was also very tasty. It just required a bit more pasta water for texture.

Either way, this is a better "tossed hot pasta & cheese" recipe to start with than, say, cacio e pepe, which is a lot more sensitive to timing and temperature. Both taleggio and chevre are pretty forgiving if you maybe take too long or get things too hot.

Asparagus & Taleggio Pasta

1 lbs skinny asparagus
1 lbs short pasta, like penne rigate or strozzapreti
1 lbs taleggio, or substitute (see above)
Fresh oregano, basil, thyme or parsley, about 3 tbs minced, or 2 tsp dried oregano and/or basil
Fresh ground black pepper
Equipment: 4qt pot, large wide bowl, knife & cutting board, cheese wire

Set a 3-4qt pot of heavily salted water (2 tsp per quart) to boil on the stove. Stem the asparagus (i.e. cut off the bottom 2-3") and cut it into 1" lengths. Cook it in the boiling water for 2-3 minutes, depending on how skinny it is. Strain it out and set it aside. If you can do this without dumping out the water, using a spider or similar, you can immediately reuse that water for the pasta. Put the asparagus in a large, wide bowl.

Remove the rind from the cheese (losing 2-3 oz in the process). Using a wire or very thin knife and a lot of swearing, cut it into 1/4" cubes. If you don't have the tools for this, just pinch small blobs off with your fingers. Drop the cubes or blobs on top of the asparagus, together with the minced herbs, and some fresh-ground pepper. Try to spread these out evenly across the bottom of the bowl.

Put the pasta in the boiling water (either the water you used for the asparagus, or if you had to dump that, new salty water you just boiled). Cook until "al dente" which pretty much just means "done but not mushy", usually the time given on the package.

Strain the pasta, somehow reserving 1 cup of the pasta cooking water. Very quickly, before the pasta can cool at all, dump it into the bowl and start tossing it with the asparagus, herbs, and cheese. The cheese should melt and form a gooey sauce on the pasta; if it seems a bit dry, add the pasta water, 2-3 Tbs at a time, until it's creamy but not wet.

Serve right away, with a salad and wine. Makes 4-5 portions.