Orecchiette with Calabrian Pesto

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I was introduced to this pasta by an Italian friend who used to bring her grandmother’s orecchiette back to London with her. I love it with this Calabrian pesto – the contrast of the creamy ricotta with the kick from the chilli works so well, especially with the springy ‘little ears’ of pasta. If you’re short of time, or making this mid-week, you can substitute dried pasta and it will still be delicious. If you cannot get orecchiette, rigatoni would be a good substitute. I would urge you to make the pasta if you have the time though – it’s very therapeutic once you get the hang of it. (Image of finished dish.)

Ingredients

  • 500 g fine semolina
  • plain flour for dusting
  • 2 plum tomatoes, deseeded and chopped
  • green salad leaves to serve

For the Calabrian Pesto

  • 4 tbsp vegetable oil
  • 1 small onion, diced
  • 1 large garlic clove, roughly chopped
  • 1 red pepper, deseeded and diced
  • 1 small red chilli, deseeded and chopped
  • 125 g vegetarian Parmesan-style cheese, grated, plus extra to serve
  • 80 g ricotta
  • 4 tbsp olive oil
  • salt and black pepper to season

Method

  1. For the pasta, combine the semolina with 200 ml cold water in a mixing bowl and, using your hands, bring it together to form a firm but pliable dough. Add a little more water if necessary – the dough should be smooth and not at all sticky. Knead the dough vigorously for 5 minutes, then wrap it in cling film and chill in the fridge for 1 hour.
  2. Unwrap the dough, place it a clean work surface and divide it into golf ball-sized pieces. Roll each piece into a rope about 1 cm (½ in) in diameter – you will need to press firmly to ensure the rope isn’t hollow, as this dough has a tendency to create pockets of air. Don’t be afraid to really work the dough – you don’t need a light touch as you would with pastry.
  3. Use a serrated, round-tipped knife to cut the rope into 1–2 cm (½–¾ in) pieces. Take each of these in turn and, holding the rounded tip of the knife at a 45-degree angle from the work surface, drag the knife across the piece of dough, pressing firmly down on it so that the dough curls up around the tip of the knife. Pick up the piece of dough, turn it over and push your thumb into it, in order to turn it inside out. It should look like a concave disk of dough, thinner in the middle, with a thicker rim around it.
  4. Put the finished orecchiette onto a lightly floured board or tray while you finish shaping the rest of them. You might need a few boards or trays, as it’s best not to let them touch each other too much in case they stick. Leave the pasta uncovered at room temperature to dry a bit while you make the pesto.
  5. For the pesto, heat half the vegetable oil in a frying pan over a medium heat, add the onion, garlic and red pepper and sauté until softened, then remove from the heat and set aside.
  6. Combine the sautéed onion, garlic and pepper with the raw chilli, vegetarian Parmesan-style cheese and ricotta in the bowl of a food processor. Add the remaining vegetable oil and the olive oil and blitz until mostly smooth, but still flecked with red. Taste and season with salt and black pepper.
  7. Bring a large pan of salted water to the boil, add the orecchiette and cook for about 5 minutes. You will need to taste a piece regularly in order to assess when they are done, as they are hand-shaped and the thickness of the dough will vary a little each time you make them. They should taste cooked but still be pleasantly chewy when they are ready.
  8. Transfer the pesto to a large, warmed serving bowl, then using a slotted spoon, scoop the pasta out of the boiling water and into the bowl of pesto. Toss the pasta with the pesto and add the chopped tomatoes. Serve immediately, with grated Parmesan-style cheese and salad on the side.