Fresh peas brighten up salmon and pasta

Diane Rossen Worthington
Tribune Content Agency

Springtime signals the peak season for fresh peas. I love to use them in dishes that show off their unique taste. Pasta is a perfect backdrop that allows the delicate, slightly sweet flavor to shine through.

If you can find fresh peas already shelled, that’s the way to go. If they aren’t available, you can also use frozen petit pois, one of the few frozen vegetables I like. Your third option is to shell the peas, which takes a bit of time.

This pasta dish was born out of having extra slow-roasted salmon in my fridge. It worked perfectly with the other flavors. You can cook up a pound of salmon and refrigerate it to use for this dish the next day, or make a simple salmon (adding a pound extra) for dinner and save the extra for this dish the next day.

Pasta dishes usually have a sauce to bind the ingredients together. I used creamy ricotta cheese as the base for the sauce. Look for a whole milk ricotta that will give the dish a rich underlying flavor. Don’t forget to save some of the pasta cooking water to add to the sauce; it will control the thickness of the sauce without adding extra calories. Another tip for cooking pasta is to combine the cooked pasta in the sauce and heat together for a minute to marry the flavors.

Orecchiette, which means little ears in Italian, is just the right shape pasta for this dish. You can also use penne or bow-tie pasta for a similar result. This creamy sauce, delicate yet packed with garlic, crushed red pepper essence and an undertone of zesty lemon, is a very easy preparation for pasta lovers. The pea shoots add a pretty garnish along with a slightly peppery pea flavor. This makes a lovely Sunday supper or Saturday brunch. Begin with a mixed green salad and serve simple biscotti and sorbet for dessert.

Don’t just make this a spring dish. Try these seasonal variations: mixed red, orange and yellow teardrop tomatoes for summer; peeled and cubed butternut squash for fall; and broccoli and mushrooms for winter. You can omit the salmon if you want a vegetarian dish. You could also substitute chicken for the salmon.

Diane Rossen Worthington is the author of 18 cookbooks.

Orecchiette with Peas, Salmon and Ricotta

2 cups fresh or frozen shelled peas or 1 1/2 pound peas in the shell (these will have to be shelled)

1 pound orecchiette

2 tablespoons olive oil

5 garlic cloves, minced

1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes, or to taste

3/4 cup chicken or vegetable stock

1 cup low-fat ricotta cheese

Zest of 1 lemon

2 cups 2-inch cooked salmon pieces

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Fresh pea shoots, for garnish

In a small pot, bring water and salt to a boil. Add the peas and cook 2 minutes. Drain immediately and reserve.

Bring a large pot of salted boiling water to a boil. Add the pasta and cook until al-dente.

While the pasta is cooking, make the sauce: In a large, deep skillet, heat the olive oil on medium-high heat. Add the peas and saute for a minute or until slightly softened. Add the garlic and red pepper flakes; cook only a minute, making sure the garlic does not burn. Lower the heat and add the ricotta, lemon zest and salmon pieces, and mix to combine completely. Season with salt and pepper. Taste for seasoning.

When the pasta is cooked, drain, reserving 1 cup of cooking water. Add the pasta to the ricotta mixture. If it is too dry, add a bit of the pasta cooking water to moisten. Mix to combine. Cook for a minute on low heat. Taste for seasoning. Garnish with pea shoots and serve immediately in shallow pasta bowls. Serves 6.

Per serving: 514 calories; 14 g fat (4 g saturated fat; 25 percent calories from fat); 66 g carbohydrates; 6 g sugar; 50 mg cholesterol; 252 mg sodium; 29 g protein; 4 g fiber.