Just about everybody loves pasta and eats it regularly nowadays. Certainly, pasta dishes -- from tagliatelle ribbons in cream sauce, to plump little agnolotti filled with pureed squash or sweet corn, to the fluffy potato-and-ricotta dumplings called gnocchi -- remain perennial favorites among our guests at Spago and my other restaurants.
But, when I talk to my friends about what they cook at home, it seems that many people are in a pasta rut. Time and time again, they wind up making spaghetti or fettuccine with tomato sauce or Bolognese or cheese sauce. And they begin to get a little bit, well, bored with that popular dish they swear they love.
I think many people shy away from filled and baked pasta recipes because, as the familiar words you see on the boxes of complicated children's toys, there is "some assembly required." But this dish is a lot easier to put together than a child's plaything -- and you can do some of the work in advance, not to mention the fact that you get to eat the delicious results.
The recipe starts with sheets of freshly made pasta, for which I include an easy recipe. But you can also find ready-to-use fresh pasta sheets in some Italian delis. (Ask for pasta sheets if you don't see it on display; they may have them in the back, displaying only already-cut noodles for purchase.) If you like, you can mix the filling, fill and cut the pasta rounds, and put them into the individual-serving tart pans up to several hours in advance; just cover each pan with plastic wrap and refrigerate until baking time.
For the filling, bags of prewashed baby spinach leaves make preparation extra easy. Feel free to embellish the vegetable mixture, including some sauteed mushrooms, for example, or slivers of sun-dried tomato. It's OK to use reduced-fat ricotta and mozzarella, too.
The tomato-garlic-basil sauce that accompanies the pasta rounds may also be prepared ahead of time, awaiting gentle reheating and stirring in of the fresh basil strips shortly before serving time. But here's another convenient tip: If you don't want to go to the effort of making that part of the recipe, feel free simply to heat up your own favorite, good-quality bottled brand of tomato-based pasta sauce instead.
It can be that easy. My recipe for Fresh Pasta Rounds with Spinach-Ricotta Mousse will make any pasta lover look at the old favorite with fresh new interest.
FRESH PASTA ROUNDS WITH SPINACH-RICOTTA MOUSSE
1 pound ricotta
8 ounces mascarpone
1/2 pound organic baby spinach leaves
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/4 cup pine nuts
3/4 pound shredded mozzarella
1 large cage-free egg, lightly beaten
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper