Each November in Sardinia, purple crocus blossoms blanket the rolling fields. It’s a striking sight against a lush green backdrop. Those same flowers also provide what locals call “red gold,” or saffron.
Saffron is one of the defining flavors of the Italian island. First cultivated by the Phoenicians, saffron now colors and perfumes numerous dishes, from little gnocchi called malloreddus to gelato and zeppole, a fried dough eaten at Carnival.
Naturally, this being Italy, it also flavors pasta — at times both the noodles and sauce — and we were particularly taken with a vegetarian one at the Sante Rughe restaurant in Gavoi. A few threads of saffron were simmered in milk, which then was mixed with salty ricotta for a rich, no-cook sauce to coat ear-shaped orecchiette.
The version in our book “COOKish,” which limits recipes to just six ingredients without sacrificing flavor, comes together quickly. Simply microwave the milk with the saffron, mix in the ricotta with a bit of salt and pepper, and add cooked pasta. We add half a cup of mint for a layer of herbal freshness.
Cup-like orecchiette pasta is perfect for catching the lightly creamy sauce, though penne works well, too. But be sure to use whole milk and whole-milk ricotta; lower-fat milk and cheese leave the dish tasting too lean.
Orecchiette with Saffron, Ricotta and Mint
Yield: 4 to 6 servings
- ½ cup whole milk
- ½ teaspoon saffron threads
- 1 cup whole-milk ricotta cheese
- Kosher salt and ground black pepper
- 1 pound orecchiette OR penne pasta
- ½ cup chopped fresh mint
- 1 ounce pecorino Romano cheese, finely grated (½ cup), plus more to serve
1. In a liquid measuring cup, microwave the milk and saffron until warm, about 1 minute; stir, then cool.
2. In a large bowl, whisk the ricotta, saffron milk and ½ teaspoon each salt and pepper.
3. Cook the pasta in a large pot of salted boiling water until al dente, then drain and reserve some of the cooking water.
4. Add the pasta to the ricotta mixture and toss. Stir in the mint and cheese, then season with salt and pepper. Serve sprinkled with additional cheese.