Pasta with Ricotta and Pan-Fried Tomato Sauce

Fluffy ricotta, jammy tomatoes, and tender noodles. Is there anything better? This was my favorite combo when I was a child. Every birthday, I would ask for stuffed shells and eat lasagna like I was channeling everyone’s fave 1980s cartoon cat.

The acidity and caramelized depth of roasted tomatoes, the light milky sweetness of the cheese, and the starchy pasta are all recreated in this recipe, which is now a quick weekday mainstay at my house. However, it requires a lot less work.

A True 30-Minute Pasta Recipe

Like many of the best dishes, this one was created out of need. I prepared it for the first time a few years ago when my friend and former coworker Ben gave me a container of freshly made ricotta. I didn’t have much time to consume the cheese right immediately, but it was light, fluffy, and creamy. In addition, I didn’t want to cook it and destroy the texture, so I substituted my favorite stuffed shell tastes.

In the 30 minutes I had left to prepare dinner, I boiled the pasta I had in my cupboard (I think it was penne) and quickly fried some onions and canned tomatoes in a pan with a little olive oil. The tomatoes reduced in size rapidly and turned somewhat caramelized and jammy while remaining in the pan. Once the pasta was cooked, I transferred it into bowls, added the tomatoes, and then topped with a generous portion of ricotta cheese. The outcome was far more beautiful and exquisite than I could have ever dreamed it would be.

I’ve made this dish numerous times throughout the years. These days, in honor of its inspiration, I frequently make it using tiny shells or ciocciolle, which are essentially “shells” but have a nicer appearance and elevate the dish to company-worthy status. Though they also move around on a plate, it’s better to serve the pasta in bowls because these circular, hollow-shaped pasta will collect particles of the cheese and sauce in their centers, making the pasta easier to eat.

I’ve also tried including additional ingredients into the tomatoes, and I think that capers or olives work particularly well since they provide a briny contrast to the sweet-sour tomatoes. This dish’s simplicity of flavor always surprises me a little bit, no matter how I prepare it.

Picking the Best Canned Tomatoes

I use full canned tomatoes for this recipe, breaking them up with my hand before adding them to the pan. This results in thick, ribbon-like segments that cook at slightly varying rates, adding complexity to the flavor of the finished sauce.

Look for San Marzanos, a plum tomato variety that has less seeds than other similar types and is prized for its combination of sweetness, acidity, and flavor. San Marzanos are the most tasting tomatoes and are especially suitable for canning. Though they can be cultivated anywhere in the world, they are originated from the San Marzano region of Italy.

It’s a common belief among purists that DOP San Marzanos, or those from the San Marzano region, are superior to those from other regions, and I have found that this is often the case. Although there are many excellent options grown and processed in the United States, the quality of canned tomatoes vary from company to business. Lately, however, I’ve started purchasing tomatoes from Italy. Generally speaking, they cost a little more, but when I use the tomatoes in a straightforward recipe like this one, where their taste really shines through, the extra dollar spent on the can is worth it.

Best Ricotta to Use

The final dish will be greatly influenced by the quality of the ricotta you use in this recipe. You will taste the flavor of the cheese here more strongly than in something like lasagna because it is served uncooked and unflavored, and diners mix it into their pasta and sauce as they eat.

Its texture will also catch your eye. Small-batch ricotta created by a dairy will have a smoother texture than mass-produced ricotta, which has a gritty texture and little flavor.

Although I’ve cooked this meal with any ricotta I could find (and it always turns out well), I prefer to treat myself to cheese from tiny, regional producers like Bellwether Farms in Sonoma. Their ricotta baskets are hand-dipped, leaving the cheese curd rich and creamy, and their cheeses preserve the subtleties and flavors of the milk they’re prepared with. Those little things add up to a lot in an assembly this easy.

Substitutions and Swaps

The recipe below is just one version of this dish. If you like the idea, you should play with it and add flavors you enjoy.

  • Capers or kalamata olives are great; you can even add chili flakes into the mix, for a puttanesca-like pasta dish.
  • If your tomatoes aren’t very flavorful, add some tomato paste for depth, a big pinch of sugar for sweetness, or a small glug of sweet vermouth for nuance. A drizzle of balsamic vinegar at the end of cooking can also add a lovely flavor.
  • I’ve even added jarred peppers or rich Turkish pepper paste before. It’s all great and adds depth of flavor to the final product.
  • Is your cheese a bit boring? Before adding it to the bowl, try flavoring it with some salt and pepper, or go further and mix grate on a fine dusting of lemon zest. A little freshly grated parmesan from a microplane will also blend into the ricotta well and add a bit of umami and a hint of nuttiness.

Best Side Dishes

This is what I generally make for a quick dinner, but I also like to add some greens to the dish if I have the time. While the pasta is cooking, quickly put up a simple salad with simply soft lettuce and vinaigrette (don’t forget to mix the tomatoes every so often).

If you have time, you might prepare something similar to this recipe for green beans with almonds and thyme, or you could blanch some broccolini or green beans in the boiling pasta water and remove them with tongs before the noodles go in. (If you’re short on time but have space on your burner, you could always boil an additional pot of water for the veggies or bake some Oven Roasted Broccolini.) It’s tasty, simple, and fast.

In addition, if I have a lot of time or prepare ahead of time, I like to roast some squash and prepare a raw kale salad, such as this one with balsamic dressing, or a collard green salad with breadcrumbs, parmesan, and lemon juice to go with this pasta. By then, though, it’s more than just a quick dinner; it’s a Saturday night feast fit for a king and queen.

Ingredients

  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 1/2 red onion, thinly sliced
  • 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt, divided
  • 8 pitted green olives, halved
  • 1 (28ouncecan whole, peeled tomatoes, drained (preferably San Marzanos)
  • 1/4 teaspoon granulated sugar
  • 1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 pound small or medium-sized shell pasta, such as “No.50” size
  • 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
  • 12 ounces good-quality ricotta
  • Chiffonade basil, for garnish

Method

  1. Bring pot of water to a boil:

    In a large pot over high heat, bring a large pot of salty water to a boil.

  2. Cook the onions and olives:

    While the pasta water is coming to a boil, prepare the sauce. In a large pan, over high heat, warm the olive oil. Add the onion and 1/4 teaspoon of salt. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions have shrunk in size and softened, about 3 minutes. Add the olives, and cook, stirring only once or twice, until they start to turn a little bit golden-brown, about 3 more minutes.

    Cooking red onion and olives for tomato sauce
     

  3. Break up tomatoes and add to the pan:

    Working with one tomato at a time, hold the tomatoes over the pan and use your hand to break them up into long, thick strips as you add them, making sure to break up the firm, stem-ends. (To keep the tomatoes from spitting juice on you, you may want to make a hole in each tomato with your thumb and drain any liquid before you break them up.) Add any liquid that might be hiding in the bottom of the can (usually about 1/2 inch of sauce).

    Tomato sauce in pan for pasta
     

  4. Season the tomatoes:

    Season the tomatoes with the remaining 1/4 teaspoon of salt, sugar, and black pepper.

    Cook the tomato sauce, stirring occasionally but letting the tomatoes caramelize on the bottom; the liquid will evaporate and the tomatoes will look jammy, about 15 minutes. As they finish cooking, let the tomatoes sit in the pan without stirring for just long enough that they start to smell like they’ve browned, similar to the smell you get when you bake a lasagna.

    Tomato sauce in pan for pasta
     

    Tomato sauce in pan for pasta
  5. Cook and drain the pasta:

    While the sauce is cooking, make the pasta. Cook the pasta until al dente (until it is cooked through but still has some bite to it in the center), according to the package instructions, about 11 minutes. Drain the pasta using a colander, then transfer it to a large mixing bowl.

    Cooking pasta in pot
     

  6. Toss pasta with butter:

    Add the butter to the mixing bowl of pasta and toss to combine using a wooden spoon until the butter has melted.

    Cooking pasta in pot
     

  7. Assemble the pasta and serve:

    Divide the cooked pasta between four bowls. Top each bowl of pasta with 1/4 of the ricotta and 1/4 of the sauce. Garnish with basil. Serve hot.

    Pasta with ricotta and pan-fried tomato sauce in a bowl

FAQ

What is Pasta with Ricotta and Pan-Fried Tomato Sauce?

Pasta with Ricotta and Pan-Fried Tomato Sauce is a delicious and comforting pasta dish that features al dente pasta tossed in a creamy ricotta cheese sauce and served with a flavorful pan-fried tomato sauce. This dish combines the richness of the ricotta cheese with the brightness of fresh tomatoes for a delightful and satisfying meal.

How do I make Pasta with Ricotta and Pan-Fried Tomato Sauce?

To make Pasta with Ricotta and Pan-Fried Tomato Sauce, start by cooking your choice of pasta according to the package instructions until al dente. Meanwhile, heat olive oil in a skillet over medium heat and add minced garlic, diced tomatoes, and a pinch of red pepper flakes. Cook the tomatoes until they soften and start to break down, creating a thick and flavorful sauce. In a separate bowl, mix ricotta cheese with salt, pepper, and a splash of pasta cooking water to create a creamy sauce. Once the pasta is cooked, drain it and toss it with the ricotta mixture until well coated. Serve the pasta hot, topped with the pan-fried tomato sauce and garnished with fresh basil or parsley.

What ingredients are needed for Pasta with Ricotta and Pan-Fried Tomato Sauce?

The main ingredients for Pasta with Ricotta and Pan-Fried Tomato Sauce include:

    • Pasta (such as penne, spaghetti, or fusilli)
    • Ricotta cheese
    • Fresh tomatoes
    • Olive oil
    • Garlic
    • Red pepper flakes
    • Salt and pepper
    • Optional ingredients for garnish include fresh basil or parsley.

Can I customize Pasta with Ricotta and Pan-Fried Tomato Sauce?

Yes, Pasta with Ricotta and Pan-Fried Tomato Sauce is versatile and can be customized to suit your taste preferences. You can add additional ingredients to the tomato sauce, such as diced onions, capers, olives, or spinach, to enhance the flavor and texture. Similarly, you can experiment with different herbs and spices in the ricotta sauce, such as oregano, thyme, or lemon zest, to add depth of flavor. Feel free to adjust the level of spiciness by adding more or less red pepper flakes according to your preference.

Is Pasta with Ricotta and Pan-Fried Tomato Sauce suitable for meal prep?

Yes, Pasta with Ricotta and Pan-Fried Tomato Sauce can be prepared ahead of time and stored for meal prep. Cook the pasta and prepare the ricotta and tomato sauces as directed, but keep them separate until ready to serve. Store the pasta and sauces in separate airtight containers in the refrigerator for up to 3-4 days. When ready to eat, reheat the pasta and ricotta sauce in a skillet or microwave until warmed through, then top with the pan-fried tomato sauce just before serving. It’s a convenient option for quick and delicious meals throughout the week.

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