It was one of the first pasta dinners I made after my sister and brother-in-law announced they were going vegan. We were in their kitchen in southern Maine, where I spent last year helping them with their homestead, and I was making a sauce from the best of the early summer produce, right from the huge garden outside.
It was based on the classic French side dish of braised lettuce and peas, but I turned it Italian by tossing it with curly pasta and kept things light with a touch of mint.
As it neared readiness, I realized I needed to make a plea, to ask them to do me one little favor, to make one OK, two little exceptions to their diet in service of the dish and its integrity. Please, I said. Please dont put nutritional yeast on this. And let me use ricotta salata.
For those of you unfamiliar with nutritional yeast, its a deactivated, flaked yeast, often fortified with extra B vitamins, that vegans appreciate for its nuttiness and ability to sub for cheese in cooking. (Its nickname: nooch.) Ive used it in sauces and the like to good effect, and I think its fabulous on popcorn.
As a pasta purist, however, I have a tough time swallowing its use as a substitute for one of the worlds great cheeses, Parmigiano-Reggiano. And I knew that there would be no substitute for this dishs crowning touch, another cheese: the pure-white ricotta salata, with its slight brine and uniquely firm yet slightly spongy texture that makes it perfect for shaving and crumbling onto vegetables that could use a little kick.
Couldnt I shower the dish with those, just this once?
They relented. Actually, it didnt take much convincing. They already had been making exceptions here and there, mostly for eggs, which is what prompted me to coin the term vague-an.
They appreciated the pasta that night, nodding in agreement and smiling, but in all honesty I suspect that if they make it themselves, theyll be reaching for the nooch.
To see printable versions of the recipe, click on link below:
BRING a large pot of salted water to a boil over medium-high heat. Add pasta and cook according to the package directions, leaving it slightly undercooked (just shy of al dente). Drain, reserving 1 cup of pasta cooking water.
POUR oil into a large skillet fitted with a lid, set over medium heat. Once oil starts to shimmer, add garlic and onion, cover and cook until tender, about 4 minutes. Stir in lettuce, peas and scallions; cover and cook until lettuce has fully wilted, 5 minutes. Season with salt to taste. Reduce the heat to low, keeping vegetables warm until the pasta is ready.
UNCOVER vegetables and pour the pasta into the skillet, tossing it with the vegetables. Add some of the pasta cooking water as needed to moisten the vegetables. Transfer pasta and vegetable mixture to a large, shallow serving bowl, toss with the Parmigiano-Reggiano, then sprinkle with mint and ricotta salata, if using. Serve immediately. Yield: 3 or 4 servingsPer serving (based on 4): 420 calories, 17 g protein, 62 g carbohydrates, 11 g fat, 3 g saturated fat, 5 mg cholesterol, 210 mg sodium, 9 g dietary fiber, 10 g sugar