Tender pasta, jammy tomatoes, and fluffy ricotta. What could be better? When I was growing up, this combination was my favorite. I requested stuffed shells for every birthday and ate lasagna like I was channeling everyone’s favorite 1980s cartoon cat.
This recipe recreates those same rich flavors—the tang and caramelized depth of cooked tomatoes and the light milky sweetness of the cheese, all balanced by starchy pasta—but it requires far less work and has become a quick weeknight staple at my house.
A True 30-Minute Pasta Recipe
This dish, like many of the best foods, was invented out of necessity. I first made it when a friend and former co-worker, Ben, gifted me a container of fresh, homemade ricotta a few years ago. The cheese was light and fluffy and creamy, and I wanted to eat it right away but didn’t have a lot of time. I also didn’t want to ruin the texture by cooking it so I improvised on the flavors of my favorite stuffed shells.
With only half an hour to get dinner on the table, I boiled the pasta I had in my cupboard (probably some penne) and cooked some onions and canned tomatoes as fast as possible by searing them in a pan with some olive oil. The tomatoes cooked down quickly, and as they sat in the pan, they caramelized a bit and became jammy. When the pasta was done, I scooped it into bowls, along with the tomatoes and piled some of the ricotta on top. The result was far better than I could have imagined it would be and also somehow elegant and pretty.
Over the years I’ve made this dish again and again. These days I often make it with small shells (a nod to its inspiration) or ciocciolle, which are also “shells” but fancier looking (they make the dish company worthy). These round, hollow shaped pasta will catch bits of the cheese and sauce in their centers, making the pasta easy to eat—though they also scoot around on a plate, so it’s best to serve them in bowls.
I’ve also experimented with adding other ingredients to the tomatoes, and I especially enjoy it with capers or olives, which offer a briny counterpoint to the sweet-sour tomatoes. No matter how I make this dish, I’m always slightly surprised by just how delicious this simple combination is.
Picking the Best Canned Tomatoes
For this recipe, I use whole canned tomatoes and break them up with my hand as I drop them into the pan. This creates thick, ribbon-like pieces that cook at slightly different speeds, which gives the finished sauce a nuanced flavor.
For the most flavorful tomatoes, look for San Marzanos, a type of plum tomato that is particularly good for canning because they have fewer seeds than other similar varieties and are known for their balance of sweetness, acid, and flavor. They’re originally from the San Marzano area of Italy but can be grown anywhere in the world.
Purists will tell you that proper DOP San Marzanos (those from the San Marzano region) are better than those from other parts of the world, and I’ve found that this is often true. The quality of canned tomatoes varies from company to company, and there are plenty of good options grown and processed in the U.S., but recently I’ve taken to buying tomatoes from Italy. They’re generally a bit more expensive, but the extra dollar spent on the can is worth it when I use the tomatoes in a simple preparation like this one, where their flavor will shine through.
Best Ricotta to Use
The quality of the ricotta you use in this recipe will also have an outsized impact on the final dish. Because the cheese is served without any preparation or flavoring, and eaters blend it into their pasta and sauce as they eat, you’ll really taste the flavor of the cheese here in a way you don’t in something like lasagna.
You’ll also notice its texture. Mass-produced ricotta has a grainy texture and doesn’t have much flavor, while a smaller-batch ricotta, made by a small dairy will have a smoother texture.
While I’ve made this dish with any ricotta I can get (and it’s always lovely), I like to splurge on cheese from small, local dairies, like Bellwether Farms in Sonoma. Their cheeses retain the flavors and nuances of the milk they’re made with, and the baskets of ricotta are hand-dipped, leaving the cheese curd dense and creamy. In a preparation this simple, those details make all the difference.
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
I usually make this dish as a quick dinner, but if I have the bandwidth, I like to add some greens to the meal. A quick salad of just soft lettuce and vinaigrette is great and can be thrown together while the pasta is cooking (just don’t forget to occasionally stir the tomatoes).
If you have the time, you can blanch some green beans or broccolini in the boiling pasta water and pull them out with tongs before the noodles go in, then drizzle them with olive oil or make something like this Green Beans With Almonds and Thyme recipe. (If you don’t have time — no pun intended —but there’s room on your stove, you can boil a second pot of water for the vegetables, or turn on your oven and make some Oven Roasted Broccolini.) It’s quick, easy, and delicious.
And if I plan ahead or have lots of time on my hands, I like to roast some squash, and also make a raw kale salad, like this Kale Salad with Balsamic Dressing recipe or a collard greens salad full of parmesan, lemon juice, and breadcrumbs to go with this pasta. But at that point, this isn’t a quick meal—it’s a feast for friends and family worthy of a Saturday night.
More Weeknight Pasta Recipes
- Weeknight Pasta with Zucchini, Eggplant, and Peppers
- Orecchiette Pasta with Sausage and Kale
- Pasta Carbonara
- Pepperoni Pizza Penne Pasta
- Easy Pasta with Winter Greens
Pasta with Ricotta and Pan-Fried Tomato Sauce
1/4 cup olive oil
1/2 red onion, thinly sliced
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt, divided
8 pitted green olives, halved
1 (28-ounce) can 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
Bring pot of water to a boil:
In a large pot over high heat, bring a large pot of salty water to a boil.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
|Nutrition Facts (per serving)|
|Amount per serving|
|% Daily Value*|
|Total Fat 26g||33%|
|Saturated Fat 8g||41%|
|Total Carbohydrate 48g||18%|
|Dietary Fiber 6g||22%|
|Total Sugars 7g|
|Vitamin C 26mg||129%|
|*The % Daily Value (DV) tells you how much a nutrient in a food serving contributes to a daily diet. 2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice.|