I need to tell you something.
I'm not going to bite. Come closer...
It's the pasta water.
The magic, that is.
Sure, the pasta itself should be good, the pesto fresh, the peas just-plucked, the cheese creamy, the night young, the kids cute, the house clean(ish), the weather warm, the table set, the lights dimmed, the mood high. But even if all those things weren't true, even if the pasta were cheap, the pesto old, the peas frozen, the cheese meh, the hour late, the kids homely, the house dusty, the weather cold, the table a mess, even if all that were true, even if all you remembered to do was to salt and save your pasta water, you'd still have a mighty fine meal.
When I forget, there's trouble. See, after I dump the cooked gemelli or shells or spaghetti or penne in the colander, my boys always appear within seconds and pluck out tubes or squiggly corkscrews or long noodly strands and suck them down the way kids do, with noise and fanfare and beaming boy-faces. And then they declare: You remembered to salt the pasta water! or You forgot to salt the pasta water!
I try not to forget.
This magic-water is especially important when making pesto.
I didn't always know how to maximize its impact. I was naive. I'd pour the pesto from the food processor into the pasta pot as the cooked noodles relaxed in the colander, spitting up billowy poufs of steam. I'd then thin the pesto with a few spoons of pasta water and dump the pasta back into the pot. And, you know, it was fine, but this tactic also kind of thinned the pesto and muted its flavor in a way that wasn't altogether satisfying. The pesto and the pasta water never sucked face.
This time, though, I added some pasta water -- just a little, mind you -- directly to the pesto as it spun and whizzed in the Cuisinart. The starchy, salty water became one with the arugula! the basil! the walnuts! the olive oil! It emulsified into a single fluid, cohesive pool of green, herbaceous loveliness.
And then I mounded the pesto on the pasta, scooped a little (okay, big) mountain of ricotta alongside, and buried it under a torrential Parmesan rain.
It's the pasta water.
That's the secret.
Recipe for Pasta with Basil-Arugula Pesto, Peas, Ricotta, and Parmesan
This is a classic, quick-to-make weeknight meal. Do yourself a favor: don't make it more complicated than it is. Instead, when you finish making dinner, just celebrate your good luck, go outside, and stare at the horizon.
Serves about 8
1 pound gemelli, small shells, penne, or other mediumish pasta
1 cup (or more) fresh or frozen peas
Plenty of kosher or sea salt
1 cup (loosely packed) arugula leaves
1 cup (loosely packed) basil leaves
1/3 cup walnuts, toasted if you're feeling fancy
1-2 cloves garlic, smashed and rough-chopped
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling
1/2 cup Parmesan cheese, plus more for grating on top
1/3 cup whole milk ricotta cheese
Cook the pasta in plenty of generously salted water according to package directions. About 3 minutes before it's ready, scoop out and reserve a cup of water (you won't need it all) and add the peas to the pot. Drain when ready.
Meanwhile, make the pesto. In a food processor fitted with the metal blade, whirl the arugula, basil, walnuts, garlic, 1/4 teaspoon salt, and a pinch of black pepper until finely minced, scraping down the sides of the workbowl if necessary. With the machine on, add about 3 tablespoons of the pasta cooking water through the feed tube, then slowly add the oil in a steady stream, again, stopping and scraping if needed. Your pesto should be loose and completely emulsified.
Remove the blade and stir in the Parmesan.
Had I thought of it, I would have returned the pasta to the pot and tossed it with the pesto before serving, adding a few extra drips of reserved pasta water just if it needed loosening. Serve with the ricotta, a glistening stream of olive oil, and an indelicate amount of Parmesan cheese.