A Pasta Dish Perfect for Early Spring

A few weeks ago while taking a Zoom cooking class at The Baker’s Pin (in Northampton, MA), I watched as Barbara Morse, my talented friend and fellow cooking teacher, explained the art of making pasta by hand. Every recipe looked and sounded delicious, but the one that I fell for hardest was farfalle tossed with a simple Taleggio cheese sauce, sprinkled with crispy pancetta and toasted breadcrumbs. Fast forward a few weeks later. At the market I gathered the ingredients for the dish, but because I had a busy schedule, I purchased good imported pasta, foregoing making my own. I opted for linguine in place of farfalle, and also added a bunch of slim asparagus to my cart—a reminder that the calendar had recently declared that spring had arrived.

At home, I quickly prepared Barbara’s glorious Taleggio sauce and set it aside as she suggested. Then I cooked my purchased pasta according to the package directions, and added the asparagus spears, cut into 1-inch slices to the pot during the last 3 minutes of cooking. After draining the linguine and asparagus. I tossed them both in the cheese sauce, and then mounded them in warm bowls along with garnishes of sautéed pancetta, fresh chopped thyme, and toasted breadcrumbs. For those of us who live in New England, this is an ideal dish for early spring when the thermometer hovers in the 20s some days and climbs to the 60s on others. It is a definite winner no matter what the weather outdoors.





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Linguine in Taleggio Sauce with Asparagus and Pancetta

1/2 cup fresh coarse breadcrumbs, or commercial ones such as panko
2 teaspoons olive oil plus 1 tablespoon for the pancetta
4-ounce package diced pancetta
3 teaspoons fresh thyme leaves plus 11/2 teaspoons for garnish (See cooking tip.)
4 thyme sprigs for garnish, optional
1 1/2 cups half-and-half
8 ounces Taleggio cheese, either chilled or frozen for 20 minutes, rind trimmed and discarded and cheese cut into 1/2-inch pieces (See cooking tip)
1 pound linguine
1 pound slim asparagus, 2 to 3 inches of tough bases snapped off and discarded, and spears trimmed on the diagonal into 1-inch pieces

1.For the breadcrumbs, heat 2 teaspoons  of the olive oil until hot in a medium, heavy skillet set over medium heat. Add the breadcrumbs and cook, stirring constantly, until crisp and golden brown, 3 to 4 minutes or less. Watch carefully so they do not burn. (Breadcrumbs can be stored in a self-sealing plastic bag and refrigerated, 4 days ahead.)

2.For the sauce, in a medium, heavy saucepan set over medium heat, heat 1 tablespoon of the olive oil until hot and add the pancetta. Cook, stirring, until the pieces are golden and crisp, 3 to 4 minutes or more. Remove with a slotted spoon and drain on paper towels; set aside for the garnish. If fat has been rendered during the cooking, discard all but about 1 teaspoon of it, leaving brown bits in the pan. Add half-and-half and return pan to medium heat. Add the cheese and whisk until melted and smooth. Stir in 3 teaspoons of fresh thyme, and then remove pan from heat and set aside. (Sauce can be prepared 2 hours ahead; cool, cover with a lid or with a sheet of aluminum foil and leave at room temperature. Reheat, stirring, over medium heat when ready to continue.)

3.To cook pasta, fill a large pot 2/3 full with water and set it over high heat. Bring to a boil and add 3 teaspoons salt and linguine. Cook the pasta according to the package directions, stirring occasionally, until al dente. Add the asparagus pieces to the pot 3 minutes before the end of the cooking time. Drain the pasta and the asparagus in a colander, and then return them to the pot in which they were cooked. Pour the sauce into the pot, and toss to coat linguine and asparagus well. Taste and season with salt as needed.

4.For serving, using tongs, divide pasta and asparagus among 4 shallow bowls. Sprinkle each serving with pancetta, fresh chopped thyme, and 1 tablespoon of the toasted breadcrumbs. If using, garnish each serving with a thyme sprig. Pass any extra breadcrumbs in a small bowl with a spoon. Serves 4 as a main course.

Cooking Tip: Fresh thyme adds considerably to the flavor of this dish. Packages are available in the produce aisles of many groceries. If you can't find fresh thyme, you can sub 2 teaspoons dried for the 3 teaspoons called for in the sauce and omit the thyme for the garnishes.

Cooking Tip: Taleggio is a smooth and creamy cow’s milk cheese imported from Italy. Taleggio’s smell is stronger than its mild taste and tang. The rind is not edible. Taleggio, which  melts fairly easily, can be found in many gourmet cheese shops, Whole Foods, and also at our local Big Y stores. If you cannot find Taleggio, a good substitute would be imported Italian fontina.

Copyright Betty Rosbottom 2023

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