There’s no easy way to put this, so I’m just going to come out and say it: I have a massive crush on Lidia Bastianich.
Yes, she is 63 years old. Yes, her show on PBS lacks the glossy finesse of shows on the Food Network. And no, she isn’t afraid of cheese or butter. But I love her approach to cooking, and her latest cookbook is full of so many easy, approachable recipes that I’ve barely touched another cookbook since I bought it.
The opening to each chapter of the book reads like a memoir with a dash of cultural history. This pasta recipe, for example, comes from the Abruzzo region of Italy, and we learn at the beginning of the chapter that it was here that Lidia met the so-called “madman of cheese,” who makes the best pecorino and ricotta she’s ever eaten. Her voice is so conversational and passionate that I eat up her narrative just as fast as I eat up her food.
Not all of the recipes are simple. There’s the Ligurian “Cima” (veal breast stuffed with eggs and vegetables) and all sorts of homemade pastas. But then there are recipes like this one — Farro Pasta with Arugula and Ricotta — that take minimal effort and yield delicious results.
The key to this dish — and many of the recipes in her book — is using top-notch ingredients: fresh ricotta, good olive oil and tender arugula, the latter of which seems to be all over the farmers’ market these days. Another important ingredient is the farro pasta, a favorite in the Abruzzo region, which you can find at some Whole Foods markets and online (I used whole-grain VitaSpelt spaghetti, which is similar to farro pasta).
The dish is so simple — it requires almost no cooking — and yet the results are wonderful. The nutty farro, creamy ricotta, peppery arugula, and salty pecorino come together in what ends up being a filling and nutritious country-style meal. I bet if you make this, you’ll end up having a crush on Lidia too.
Farro Pasta with Arugula and Ricotta
Adapted from Lidia Cooks from the Heart of Italy
Note: Use the best ricotta you can find, preferably fresh. I make my own, and you can find recipes for that all over the internet. It’s a lot easier than it sounds.
Kosher salt for the pasta pot
4 ounces tender, small arugula leaves, stems trimmed (abotu 1 1/2 cups tightly packed)
1 pound farro spaghetti, ziti or other farro or spelt pasta
6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 cups whole-milk ricotta, preferably fresh
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 cup freshly grated pecorino (or half pecorino and half Grana Padano or Parmigiano-Reggiano, for a milder flavor), plus more for passing
Bring a large pot of well-salted water to a boil.
Meanwhile, rinse the arugula leaves well and dry them. Chop leaves into rough strips, about 1/2-inch wide.
When the water comes to a boil, drop in the farro pasta, stir and separate the strands. Return to a boil and cook the pasta according to the package instructions until it is al dente, stirring occasionally.
While the pasta cooks, pour 4 tablespoons olive oil into a large skillet and set it over low heat. Spoon in the ricotta, and break up the curds with a wooden spoon, spreading and gently warming the cheese and oil in the pan — don’t let them get hot or start cooking. Season with 1 teaspoon salt.
When the pasta is al dente, lift it from the pot with tongs or a strainer, drain it for a moment, and drop it into the skillet. Toss the pasta over low heat for a minute or more, until the strands are evenly coated with ricotta — incorporate spoonfuls of hot pasta water if the sauce is stiff and not flowing.
Turn off the heat and sprinkle the grated cheese and remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil on the pasta, and toss well again. Scatter the shreds of arugula on top and tumble them into the pasta for a few moments, so the greens barely wilt. Serve immediately in warm bowls with more grated cheese at the table.
Yield: 6 servings