Not up for cream sauce in hot weather? We hear you. That’s why we’ve tweaked the classic recipe for Pasta al Limone (Pasta with Lemon) to create a lighter dish. Our version has all the flavor but none of the heavy stuff.
We’ve added artichoke hearts because they pair beautifully with lemon. The result is a dish that’s quick and easy enough for weeknight dinner. But good enough to serve weekend company.
Time to send out the invitations.
Classic Pasta al Limone generally includes a fair amount of cream – which we omit to make a lighter, more summery dish. Artichoke hearts are not traditional, but they add a great flavor boost.
Pasta dishes with thin, clingy sauces (like this one) usually are made with long strands of pasta, such as spaghetti or linguine. We instead use orecchiette (which means “little ears”) because the sauce nestles nicely into the hollows of the pasta “ears.” In addition, because the pasta is similar in size to the bite-sized artichoke heart pieces, this is a very forkable dish. But of course, you can use any pasta shape you prefer.
Speaking of artichoke hearts, what kind to use? Frozen work well. But you can also use jarred artichoke hearts (if they’re packed in water, drain and rinse them lightly before using; if they’re packed in brine, drain and rinse them thoroughly). Jarred artichoke hearts are convenient, of fairly good quality, and you can keep them in the pantry.
Prep time for this dish is 10 to 15 minutes. Cooking time adds 10 minutes or so.
This recipe serves 2 as a main course, 4 as a starter.
- 6 to 8 ounces dried pasta (we’re using orecchiette, but see headnote)
- enough water to cover the pasta by about 2 inches (see Notes)
- ~1 tablespoon kosher salt for seasoning the pasta cooking water (to taste; see Notes)
- 3 to 4 tablespoons butter (to taste; either salted or unsalted butter works)
- 6 to 10 ounces artichoke hearts, cut into bite-size pieces (frozen or jarred; see headnote)
- zest of 1 lemon
- ~2 tablespoons lemon juice (to taste)
- ~1½ ounces grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese (divided)
- additional salt, if needed (the cheese usually makes this dish salty enough for us)
- freshly ground black pepper to taste (see Notes)
- 2 tablespoons chopped parsley (optional)
- Measure out the pasta, put water on to boil, measure out the salt you’ll use to season the pasta water, then do the prep work for the dish while the water comes to a boil.
- When the water reaches a boil, add the pasta and the salt. Stir to make sure the pieces aren’t sticking together, then bring the water to a simmer. Cook the pasta according to the package directions (usually 7 to 10 minutes; we like to cook until it’s al dente).
- Make the sauce: Melt the butter in a large frying pan over stovetop heat. When the butter is melted, add the chopped artichoke hearts and cook them (about 2 minutes for jarred artichoke hearts, 5 for frozen). About halfway through the cooking, add the lemon zest and half the lemon juice. Once the artichoke hearts are fully cooked, taste the sauce, then add more lemon juice if necessary (we almost always do). If the pasta isn’t fully cooked by this time (it probably won’t be), turn off the heat under the frying pan.
- When the pasta is cooked, use a measuring cup to scoop out about a cup of the pasta cooking water and set it aside. Drain the pasta, then add it to the frying pan.
- Turn the heat up under the frying pan. Add about ½ cup of the pasta cooking water, then toss the pasta with the sauce. Cook for a minute or two to reduce the sauce and allow it to coat the pasta with a thin layer.
- Add about 1 ounce of the grated cheese (reserve the rest for garnish). Toss quickly with the pasta, adding a bit more pasta cooking water if the cheese gums up. Add salt (if needed) and pepper to taste, then toss to combine. Add the chopped parsley, if using, and toss again.
- Plate the dish, garnishing with the rest of the grated cheese (and extra chopped parsley, if you wish), and serve.
- You can substitute extra-virgin olive oil for butter if you wish. But we think butter works better with lemon – especially since we’re not using cream in this dish.
- You could add garlic to this dish, though we think its flavor might be overkill. If you want to use it: Add a whole peeled garlic clove to the melted butter, let it cook gently for about a minute (don’t let it brown), then remove the garlic and proceed with the recipe.
- Alternatively, you could use minced shallots (cook them in the butter for about a minute, then add the artichoke hearts and proceed). Again, we don’t think this is necessary, but it would add extra flavor.
- Need a substitute for artichoke hearts? Asparagus would work. Cut it into pieces of an inch or less.
- How much water to use when cooking the pasta? In the past, we used vast vats of it. Lately, though, we’ve been cooking pasta in much smaller amounts of water – typically just enough to cover it by an inch or two. Why the change? Because pasta cooking water has more flavor and “body” if we use a smaller quantity – which makes a difference when we use the cooking water in a sauce (some of the pasta starch leeches into the water as it cooks; using less water concentrates the starch). But use as much water as you prefer.
- We initially add just half the lemon juice in Step 3 to make sure we don’t add too much, then add the rest later. We think about 2 tablespoons of lemon juice is perfect for this dish, but you may prefer less.
- We sometimes zest an extra lemon and use the zest as additional garnish.
- When you add grated cheese to this dish (Step 6), it can clump up a bit. Tossing usually corrects that, but adding a bit more pasta water can also help.
- Fresh parsley makes a great addition to this dish. Fresh basil would also work. Or maybe tarragon.
- Freshly ground black pepper is a must for this dish, in our opinion. We like to use lots (a couple dozen grinds).
- We use kosher salt in cooking. It’s less salty by volume than regular table salt (the crystals are larger and more irregular, so they pack a measure less tightly). If you’re using table salt, start with about half the amount we suggest. But always season to your taste, not ours.
“I can’t resist artichokes,” said Mrs. Kitchen Riffs. “Or lemon. This is such a tasty dish.”
“Aww, shucks,” I said. “I’m artichoked up.”
“Did a Russian general give you that joke?” said Mrs K R. “I think it misfired.”
“Hey, I’m a creative guy,” I said. “When life gives me lemons, I make pasta!”
“Just don’t quit your day job in the kitchen,” said Mrs K R. “Standup comedy might not pan out.”
“Pan out?” I said. “Good one! I can use that in my next Kitchen Laffs routine.”
“Be ready to dodge the lemons,” said Mrs K R. “Not to mention the tomatoes.”
That struck a sour note. Guess it’s time to zest my case.
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