An Easy, Creamy Lemon Pasta for Your Weeknight Repertoire

May 1, 2019 Updated: May 2, 2019

A quick peek inside my pantry will reveal one major insight into my cooking style: I am not afraid of pasta.

Carbs, and pasta in particular, have become the arch-nemesis of many diet plans, and the gluten-free phenomenon hasn’t exactly helped to shine a positive light on my beloved carbohydrate. But in my kitchen, pasta is one of the major food groups. I’ll concede that yes, fine, pasta should be enjoyed in moderation, but in my opinion, it should, under no circumstances, be avoided.

Just think of all the different ways you can eat pasta! A meaty, slow-cooked ragu over thick pappardelle noodles is the perfect meal on a cold winter night. A cold, zesty pasta salad with grilled vegetables is my go-to potluck dish for a summer BBQ. Only have 10 minutes to get dinner on the table? Spaghetti tossed in store-bought marinara sauce and showered with a flurry of freshly grated Parmesan can’t be beat. And in the springtime? It’s all about light, lemony pasta.

Shortcut Sauce

With my husband George training for the Big Sur Marathon for the past several months while we’re raising a three-month-old baby (a daily marathon!), simple weeknight pasta dishes have been in heavy rotation at our house. As it turns out, long-distance running and newborn-induced sleep deprivation both require carbo-loading.

We love the lemon cream sauce that comes draped over freshly made bucatini at our favorite restaurant in Carmel, but it’s a time-consuming recipe, involving making a roux, then slowly simmering heavy cream, lemon zest and juice, and Parmesan together until they form a decadent sauce. I knew I had to come up with a simpler way to get our creamy lemon pasta fix.

Enter: Mascarpone cheese. Mascarpone is basically the Italian version of cream cheese, but made from whole cream versus milk, so it’s even richer and more delicious. In this recipe, we simply stir together mascarpone and some reserved pasta cooking water until it melts into a smooth sauce.

Pro tip: Start incorporating a little pasta cooking water into all of your pasta sauces. It’s nice and starchy, and helps create creamy sauces that will cling to every nook and cranny of your pasta.

I love using orecchiette when I’m making creamy pasta dishes. It’s the type that’s shaped like little satellites, with craters that are perfect for scooping up the sauce and whatever else is in your dish—crisp, salty pancetta and hearty Swiss chard, in this case. If you can’t find pancetta, feel free to swap in bacon, or even sausage. The most beautiful bunch of greens I could find at my market was Swiss chard, but use whatever looks best at yours—kale, spinach, and bok choy are all perfect in this pasta.

A Joint Effort

As I’ve mentioned before in this column, George and I love to cook dinner as a way to unwind and relax at the end of a busy day. With the baby now in our lives, we’ll often put him down to sleep and then realize that although we’ve been orbiting around each other all day long, we haven’t actually had a real, adult conversation with each other since the night before.

Even on days when we are completely exhausted, and would rather skip eating altogether and crawl into bed at 7 p.m., we make an effort to cook and enjoy a decent meal together. Sometimes we eat in front of the TV, because when you only have one hour to spare, conversation takes the backseat to Game of Thrones. But as often as possible, we try to eat on real plates, with heavy pours of our favorite libations (rosé for me, IPA for him), at the actual dinner table. Having simple dinners like this pasta dish, which only takes about 20 minutes from start to finish, helps us make these nightly dinners together a reality.

Every time I cook is an opportunity for recipe development, so 99 percent of the time, we spend the first several minutes of dinner discussing the dish in front of us: Me, quizzing George on each of its elements, attempting to extract more information about what he does or doesn’t like; George, racking his brain for feedback on the food that he so desperately just wants to shovel down.

For the record, George’s favorite part of this pasta dish is that it is “super lemony.” It became that way after the first iteration, which used the juice of only one lemon, and was declared “not lemony enough!” Valuable feedback, since an extra strong lemon flavor is exactly what I was after. One lemon per serving might seem aggressive, but trust me, it gets the job done.

Divide and Conquer

To divide up the cooking duties, assign one person to cook the orecchiette while the other starts the knife work. Your pancetta should come pre-cut from the store, so the only ingredients that need prepping are the shallot, garlic, lemon zest, and chard. Be sure to cut your garlic lengthwise into long thin pieces, for no other reason than that it looks fancier in your finished pasta.

After the shallot and garlic are prepped, the pasta-cooker can switch from pasta-boiling mode to sauteing mode, and get cranking on cooking the pancetta, and then the shallot and garlic in the pancetta fat. After that, it’s just a matter of stirring up the simplest cream sauce ever created, dumping in the pasta and greens, and trying to make it all the way to the dinner table before devouring every last bite.

creamy lemon pasta on plate with parmesan 1
A flurry of freshly grated Parmesan completes the dish. (Caroline Chambers)

Creamy Lemon Pasta With Pancetta and Spring Greens

Serves 2

  • 8 ounces orecchiette pasta
  • 3 ounces diced pancetta
  • 2 teaspoons olive oil, optional as needed
  • 1 shallot, minced
  • 3 garlic cloves, thinly sliced lengthwise
  • 4 ounces mascarpone, room temperature
  • Zest of 1 lemon
  • Juice of 2 lemons
  • 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
  • 1 bunch Swiss chard, stems discarded, thinly sliced into ribbons (about 2 packed cups of greens)
  • Lemon wedges
  • Parmesan, for serving

Bring a large pot of heavily salted water to a boil and cook pasta to al dente according to package instructions. Reserve 1/2 cup of the cooking liquid and drain.

Meanwhile, in a large skillet, cook pancetta over medium heat until beginning to brown, about 3 minutes. If the pan doesn’t have a good amount of grease in it (some pancetta has less fat than others), add the olive oil. Add shallot and garlic and cook for an additional 3 to 4 minutes, until shallot and garlic are translucent.

Turn the heat to low and stir in the mascarpone, 1/4 cup of the reserved pasta cooking water, lemon zest, lemon juice, salt, and red pepper flakes. Stir until the mascarpone is melted and a smooth sauce forms.

Stir in the pasta and Swiss chard until the Swiss chard wilts. If the pasta sauce is too thick, stir in small splashes of the reserved cooking water until it is creamy and sticks to the pasta.

Serve with a lemon wedge and grated Parmesan cheese.

Caroline Chambers is a recipe developer, food writer, and author of “Just Married: A Cookbook for Newlyweds.” She currently lives in Carmel, California with her husband George and brand new baby boy, Mattis. Follow her on Instagram for cooking tips and snippets from her life in Northern California @carochambers.