Pasta dish serves up a taste of Italian sunshine

Gretchen McKay
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (TNS)

Are you getting itchy for travel? Me too, now that the spring has teased us with warm and sunny weather that just begs for a trip.

In particular, I’ve been dreaming of Italy after seeing a friend’s post about his family’s trip to the Amalfi Coast. My husband and I visited the cliffside village of Positano years ago, and you don’t soon forget places with such stunning scenery and amazing food.

There’s pasta, of course, but the region also is known for its incredible lemons, which can grow larger than baseballs and are used to make its famed limoncello, along with sorbet, seafood recipes and cake. Its juice also often finds its way into sauces, inspiring me to sate my longing for a trip to Italy with a fresh and fragrant lemony pasta dish I might find on a menu there.

I accentuated the lemon flavor with lemon-infused olive oil and traded slivered almonds for the more traditional pine nuts. (Pignoli are more expensive.) If you can’t find fresh English peas (they come in bags at Trader Joe’s), frozen are fine.

A taste of sunshine: Pesto is traditionally made with crushed basil leaves, garlic, pine nuts and Parmesan cheese blended with olive oil. Here, thin strips of lemon zest are added to the food pro­cessor, along with lemon juice to imbue the sauce with a taste of sunshine. Asparagus adds to the spring flavor.

Linguine With Lemon, Asparagus And Peas

1 cup fresh English peas

1 pound dried linguine

2 organic lemons, zest removed in long strips and juice reserved (about 1/4 cup)

1/2 cup toasted slivered almonds

2 generous handfuls fresh basil or spinach (about 2 lightly packed cups)

1 clove garlic, smashed

1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese, plus more for passing

Pinch of sugar

1/4 to 1/3 cup good-quality olive oil (I used lemon-infused oil), plus more for pan

Salt and pepper

1/2 pound fresh asparagus, cut into 2-inch pieces

Bring 2 quarts of generously salted water to a boil. Add peas, and cook for 60 seconds. Remove to bowl with a slotted spoon or hand-held strainer, and set aside. Bring water back to boil and add linguini, and cook at a boil until al dente, about 8-9 minutes. Reserve 1 cup of cooking liquid, then drain pasta and add to a large bowl.

While pasta is cooking, make pesto.

Place lemon zest, almonds and basil in bowl of a food processor; process until coarsely grated, about 30 seconds. Add garlic, Parmesan cheese, lemon juice and a pinch of sugar (to balance out the lemon’s bitterness) and process until the mixture comes together into a thick paste.

With food processor running, drizzle olive oil into the mixture in a steady stream. Continue processing until the oil is integrated smoothly, stopping occasionally to scrape the sides of the food processor with a spatula. If you prefer a smoother pesto, add more oil and/or

lemon juice to taste.

Season to taste with salt and pepper, and set aside until pasta is done.

Heat a generous drizzle or two of oil in a cast-iron or other heavy skillet. Add asparagus and saute until lightly browned and tender, 3 to 5 minutes. Add cooked peas and saute another minute, just until warmed through.

In a large bowl, pour pesto over hot pasta and toss to coat, adding a little reserved pasta water if sauce needs to be thinned. Add asparagus and peas and toss until well combined. (The peas will try to hide in the bottom of the bowl.)

Serve immediately in warmed bowls, with additional Parmesan for passing.

Serves 4-6.