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in the kitchen with: kate flaim’s absorption pasta

by Kristina Gill

I jumped at the chance to work with Kate Flaim when she proposed an absorption pasta with asparagus, bacon, and feta cheese.  Asparagus come around once a year, and though my house is surrounded by woods where they grow wild, I can never beat the farmers’ wives to the forage and must get them in my local market.  Of course I didn’t need any encouragement really when I saw an opportunity to use bacon either!  {Vegetarians and vegans, this recipe is easily converted, so don’t be scared off!}  I hope you will jump at the chance to try out this method of cooking pasta before asparagus disappear from your market, or that you’ll choose some of Kate’s suggestions for what she uses when asparagus aren’t available, or try your own combinations! Let us know what you come up with!   -Kristina

About Kate: Kate Flaim is a freelance writer and food blogger based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Before striking out on her own, she covered luxury goods, food, wine, design and pretty much anything non-business related for Fortune Magazine in New York. In addition to preparing for the arrival of her first child this summer, she talks up the joys of fresh eggs, farm shares and sitting down to dinner on her blog, Kate F., Girl Reporter. Kate and her husband, Ben, lug their groceries to a fourth-floor walkup built in 1901, with killer molding and a fantasy pantry set-up.

CLICK HERE for the full recipe after the jump!

Absorption pasta with asparagus, pancetta and lemon zest

From Kate: I first heard of this technique years ago from the marvelous Clotilde on Chocolate and Zucchini. Mark Bittman has another version in “How to Cook Everything,” which he calls “Pasta, risotto-style.”

Serves 4-6

3/4 lb. (350g) good-quality penne (the cooking time of my penne lists an 8-9 minute cooking time)
2 or 3 shallots, finely sliced, or half of a small yellow onion, finely diced
2-4 slices of pancetta, chopped
1 bunch asparagus
1/4 lb. (115g) Feta cheese
Zest of one lemon
4 cups (960ml) Chicken stock
Kosher salt and freshly-ground pepper
2 tablespoons (30ml) Olive Oil

A few notes before you start:   To make this vegetarian/vegan, just leave out the pancetta/cheese and use good vegetable stock instead of chicken stock.  All the pasta cooking times are approximate and will vary depending on the pasta you use.  The amount of chicken stock you use will vary, so keep all four cups called for in the recipe on hand, however you may not use it all!

Prepare the asparagus: Snap off the woody ends. Cut each stalk into angled pieces roughly the length and shape of the pasta.  Keep the tips separate from the stalks once you have cut them, as you will add them to the pasta at different times later.

Prepare the pancetta: Put olive oil in a saucepan with tall sides over medium-high heat (I use a 4-quart saucepan for this amount of pasta). Once the oil has heated up, cook the pancetta to render the fat and crisp it up. Remove from the saucepan and and set it aside.

Cooking the pasta: Add the sliced shallots to the pan and sauté until they start to soften, a minute or less. Add in the dry pasta and stir it around for one minute to coat it in the oil and shallots, toasting the pasta a little bit. Keep an eye on the shallots to make sure they aren’t burning.

Pour in 2.5 or 3 cups (600-720ml) of chicken stock and give it a good stir (the pasta should be nearly covered). Bring to a simmer and then reduce the heat to keep it from boiling. Cook for five to seven minutes, stirring occasionally.

When the pasta is about half done, stir in the asparagus stalks. Stir more frequently for two minutes as the stock cooks away, careful not to break the pasta.  You might need another splash of stock; you don’t want the pan to dry out all the way.  When the pasta seems to be getting close to done—test frequently!—add the asparagus tips.

Cook another minute or two, stirring constantly, until al dente.   Since this dish holds the heat and the pasta keeps cooking a little once you’ve removed it from the heat, you should err on the side of less—rather than more—cooked.

You should still have some thickened broth at the bottom of the pan; as you toss the pasta to season it this will coat everything and make it silky instead of sticky.

Remove from the heat and stir in half of the pancetta and three-quarters of the lemon zest. Season to taste, but remember that you’ll be adding salty feta on top.

Serve: Top each portion with crumbled feta, pancetta, and lemon zest.

Why Kate chose this recipe: This is my favorite go-to weeknight dinner, easily pieced together from whatever I have on hand. I have made it with every possible combination of ingredients: Roasted squash, sage and walnuts in the Fall; sausage and kale in winter; heirloom tomatoes (folded through at the very end), basil and feta or mozzarella in late summer. Sub in crumbled sausage or thick-cut bacon for the pancetta, or leave them out (if you must).   I like how this cooking method turns the starch that normally washes away in the pasta water into a silky sauce that coats each piece and helps the vegetables stick to the pasta instead of sinking to the bottom of the bowl.

Photography Intro image, and ingredients by Kristina Gill; props: mud australia large flared bowl in slate and salt dish in white, plate by Karin Eriksson, brown dish by Sabon, hand forged serving utensils and all other props (Kristina’s own).

Pasta process images by Kate Flaim; All-Clad 4-quart saucepan

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  • Yum! -This vegan is not scared off. Also, I heard from a friend that wild asparagus tastes amazing and grows like a weed! Thanks for sharing the recipe!

  • This looks really good. Question: Could you do a PRINT version of your recipes so we don’t print out 8 pages when we print it? thanks

    • hi jane –
      we are working on a way to launch a print version of the recipes – hopefully, it will happen soon!

      in the meantime, i would suggest that you cut and paste everything into a text editor (not word), even if you scroll over the images, they won’t transfer. this way, you’ll only be printing one page.

      sorry for the extra steps, be assured that we are working on a solution!
      amy a.

  • oh heck yes. i’ll leave out the meat and try this after a trip to the farmer’s market for more asparagus. a local dairy makes a wonderful aged feta that will be perfect!

  • I can vouch for this recipe. Upon Kate’s recommendation I have cooked this quite a bit. Absolutely delicious.

    I like adding a bit of bacon fat to the oil in the beginning to give the onions a bit more bacon-y flavor. I often use seared brussel sprouts and meyer lemon with a bit of gorganzola.

  • Hi guys! I hope everyone who tries the recipe enjoys it. Remember, it’s all pretty approximate, so just keep tasting and experiment.

    Snowy, you asked about other kinds of cheese. Try grating good Parmesan or aged pecorino over the top. Or if you’re lucky enough to find young pecorino (I’ve never found it outside of Italy, but a girl can dream), crumble that on! With that, if you sub in fava beans for the asparagus you’ll create a little taste of spring in Tuscany.

  • Ohhhh, Kate thanks for sharing this. I have found my spring in a bowl here. Asparagus! Cheese! BACON!

    I’d never heard of cooking pasta like risotto. Brilliant!

    Can’t wait to try this tonight

  • I made this last night, it was a huge hit with my family. Very good and I used only one pot!

  • Ohhhh, Kate thanks for sharing this. I have found my spring in a bowl here. Asparagus! Cheese! BACON!

    I’d never heard of cooking pasta like risotto. Brilliant!

    Can’t wait to try this tonight

  • I made this for dinner last night, and it was absolutely amazing! And extremely fast… thank you!

  • So tasty! Used baby broccoli instead of asparagus and it was fab. Definitely a new favorite!

  • Funny that Mark Bittman called this pasta cooking technique “risotto style”…I always called it “Rice A Roni style” because that’s how the box tells you how to cook it. When I was a kid learning to cook, Rice A Roni was an exotic ingredient we rarely had…I convinced my mom to buy some because we had a coupon for it. For years, I heard about it being given away as a consolation prize on “Let’s Make A Deal”, so I had to try it. You browned the rice/vermicelli in the pan with some oil before adding the water and so called “spice packet”.

  • I made this for dinner last night and really enjoyed it. I love risotto rice and was really intrigued to cook the pasta this way. I look forward to trying it in all sorts of new ways. Great post! Thanks!

  • I’ve never tried cooking pasta this way so I’m definitely going to test it out! But I’ll veganize it with tempeh bacon and homemade almond feta (recipe is online at Vegetarian Times). :)

  • Great-sounding recipe! I have been cooking pasta this way for a while using heavily salted water (just enough to cover the pasta) which I find so much easier than bringing a huge pot of water to a boil — takes forever on my stove. The liquid from cooking it that way is a great addition to any pasta sauce because it adds flavor and texture — but this method is even easier and sounds even tastier! Can’t wait to try it.

  • I’ve never tried cooking pasta this way so I’m definitely going to test it out! But I’ll veganize it with tempeh bacon and homemade almond feta (recipe is online at Vegetarian Times). :)

  • We cook pasta like this in Nigera. But instead of asparagus, we use carrots, cabbages and peas right at the beginning with the shallots. its very very easy and foolproof!

  • Wonderful photos – I just love how soft they look and this meal looks so good. We love using pasta made from kamut wheat and will for sure have to try this. I know our family would love it! Thanks :)

  • This looks so good! Does anyone know if this method of cooking pasta would work with Tinkyada rice pasta?

  • How interesting. I always cook my veggies in with my pasta. I never knew there was a fancy word for it! This looks so yummy.

  • I made the vegetarian version of this for a group of friends on Friday night and it was a smash hit! It tasted even better the next day when I heated up some leftovers.

    I can’t wait to make it again!

  • I tried this over the weekend and hate to say that I was not impressed. The cooking style sounds so flavorful but the final dish just didn’t deliver. I made mine vegetarian and by the next day figured out that a lot more salt helped a bit, but, overall, it just needed more flavor. I’m thinking garlic or just sundried tomato to balance the shallots and add some kick, but I really just haven’t figured it out yet.

  • I worked an an au pair in Paris when I finished school and the mother of the children I worked for cooked pasta this way – it brings back memories! Thanks for the beautiful recipe.

  • Yummmmm. Yep. Works with whole wheat pasta. Sooooooooooooo good. Seriously. I added a little fresh thyme I had on hand too.

  • Beret and Sean- I’m not familiar with Tinkyada; you might try a small batch to experiment? In my experience, some rice pasta can get pretty slimy if it’s overcooked at all, so tread carefully.

    Christine (the one at 3:02)- Losing the flavor from the pancetta and chicken broth definitely leaves room for some additional ingredients to make it savory enough. Sun dried tomatoes are a good idea! You might also try a version with mushrooms, since they pack a real umami punch. If you use some re-hydrated dried shiitakes or something similar, add the flavored water in with your stock.

    Kate- Again, I’ve never done it but I don’t see why not (it sounds like Lindsay was successful!). I think it will take a bit longer, probably? Just keep tasting as you cook.

  • I worked an an au pair in Paris when I finished school and the mother of the children I worked for cooked pasta this way – it brings back memories! Thanks for the beautiful recipe.

  • I made this last night and it was a HUGE hit at our house. The lemon and asparagus go really well with the feta and give it a real “Spring” feel. I can’t wait to try it with some tomatoes, mushrooms, sausages…. I LOVE pasta without the typical tomato sauces

  • Made this on Friday night and created an impromptu dinner party with friends for the occasion. It was delish, but got a little confused on how much broth to add, and when. Turned out fine though. The lemon zest is a must have. Also took three trips to find good asparagus so going to need to find an alternative for when they aren’t available. Trader Joes Haricot Verts? Maybe.

  • Hi Hollis,

    We tried very hard to get the instructions right with this, but I am sorry that you were confused with what we came up with. I do try to test every recipe before we post it so that I can be sure that it works.

    I found Kate’s reference to Clotilde’s recipe to be very helpful in providing background and an alternative method which incorporates the broth a bit differently. Maybe after trying both methods, you will come up with one that works best for you, and you can check back in and share your tips and new vegetable combos?


  • A family fave for me is Blue Cheese, Asparagus and diced tomato pasta!!!
    Very close to this one I would think. Very easy and delicious.

  • I’ve wanted to make this since you posted and did tonight! It was delicious. I used herbed feta and lime zest (cause I forgot a lemon at the store) and thick bacon in lieu of pancetta and it was so good! Thank you!

  • I just made this for dinner tonight, was absolutely delicious!! Thanks so much for sharing this recipe, will definately be making it again :)

  • Made this for lunch today. Absolutely delish! Thank you for the clear directions. That always helps the first time with a new recipe.

  • I made this for dinner two nights ago. My boyfriend absolutely loved it, and is already looking forward to the next time it’s on the menu! I’ve been looking for ways to use the chicken stock I make almost weekly after our fabulous Roast Chicken dinners :)

  • I just made this tonight minus the pancetta (totally spaced at the market when shopping) and added fava beans to it.

    It turned out great! I ‘ll definitely be making this one again. Such great way to cook pasta.

  • WOW. This was absolutely delicious! I made this a few nights ago (a full recipe for just my husband and I) and my husband ate it for every meal except breakfast until every single bite was gone. Definitely making this recipe again… Thanks so much for sharing!!!

  • I made this with parmesan, prosciutto, and vegetable broth substitutions, and it was stellar!

    Next time I’ll probably cut the broth with some water to lighten it up a bit, but an instant new favorite. Thank you!

  • Just made this tonight and it was fantastic! I skipped the cheese and it was still incredibly rich and creamy. Fantastic recipe. Thanks!

  • Beret and Sean– I made this last night with Tinkyada brown rice penne. The Tinkyada penne has a 15-16 minute cook time, so I stretched out each of the times given above (added asparagus at 10 minutes, cooked for a total of almost 20 minutes) and used the full 4 cups of broth. All of the early tastings made me nervous (pasta tasted “raw” up to the very end, and the sauce/broth tasted bland and starchy), but, to my delight, the final additions of salt, cracked pepper, lemon zest, pancetta and feta totally transformed it! An instant hit in the house! The Tinkyada penne started to break apart a bit in the final stirrings, but once topped with everything else, it was still a good-looking dish.

  • Thanks so much for this great recipe! The recipe is already pretty low calorie, but I left out the pancetta and oil and added an extra bunch of asparagus – it still turned out delicious. I never tried absorbtion pasta before, but now I am a huge fan!

  • While Mark Bittman does have the risotto recipe it calls for rice-like pasta. I’ve been waiting all week to try it. The Kitchn brought me here, but the technique of using real pasta and not rice-imitations intrigued me. When I described it to a co-worker she swooned. I will pass the URL on to my fellow foodies if my rendition works out (subbing goat cheese for feta).

  • Made this for dinner tonight. I used brown rice penne, as I’m gluten intolerant, and it came out wonderfully. Thank you for the recipe!

  • This sounds delicious – can’t wait to try it tonight! One question…is there a way to print out this and other “In the Kitchen with..” recipes in an easy to read format – so all the instructions are condensed? Thanks!

  • My friend made this last night for a dinner party and it was out of this world!! A definite keeper. Thanks !

  • I made this tonight and yum yum yum yum yum. I love the pasta risotto method – you couldn’t tell that creme wasn’t used! So rich and so fresh with the lemon zest! I can already invision adaptations – thanks!

  • I finally got around to making this tonight. It was amazing! Absolutely delicious! Thank you!

  • I just made this! I replaced the feta (my mom had trown it away by mistake) by a handful of parmegiano and the juice of one lemon in the end, to give it a tang. It was a success, everyone took a 2nd serving! Thanks

  • This was absolutely delicious! I used Farelle noodles instead, and I doubled everything. (and tripled the bacon and feta =) ) it was SO good! Thanks!