This creamy pasta with ham, peas, and Parmesan is like the best adult version of mac and cheese thanks to the elevated zing of lemon zest.
With its fragrant skin, there’s nothing quite like a shave of lemon for those bits of zest to add a brightly sublime bite to any recipe. And when added to a classic cream sauced pasta with kids’ favorite ham and peas, this pasta dinner gets a dressed-up feel fast. Think of it as mac and cheese’s sophisticated older cousin who spent a semester abroad.
In this recipe, short pasta cradles sweet-tender green peas and buttery, browned chunks of ham tossed in a creamy Parmesan sauce that’s brightened up with lemon zest then topped with fresh chives. I use orecchiette for this recipe because its divot shape is ideal for capturing all the sauce, and those peas fit perfectly in its nooks and crannies. The chives (arguably my favorite spring herb) bring a pop of green and a yummy freshness that beautifully complements the lemon and ham flavors for a dinner everybody at the table loves.
What’s in This Creamy Lemon Pasta
You don’t need a ton of ingredients to make this easy pasta dish, which includes several items you probably already have in your kitchen. Here’s what you’ll need:
- Orecchiette—I prefer orecchiette in this because the peas and sauce nestle into those “little ears” so you get a perfect bite each time. You could also use small shells, rigatoni, or bow tie pasta.
- Kosher salt
- Butter—this will help crisp up your ham and add flavor to the sauce
- Ham—the fattier, the better. I like either an off-the-bone-ham or a Virginia ham. You could also use pancetta, or omit the meat altogether.
- Green peas—fresh or frozen work great, just defrost if using frozen
- Heavy cream—you could also use mascarpone (if you use mascarpone, just add it at the end since it’s not a liquid and won’t need to reduce and thicken)
- Lemon zest—brightens everything up and imparts a lovely flavor that is a nice counter to the rich flavors of the ham and cream sauce
- Parmesan—adds a nice saltiness and creaminess to the sauce
- Reserved pasta water (this starchy, salty goodness helps create the creamy sauce)
How to Make This Creamy Lemon Pasta
This pasta is a breeze to make, and it comes together in 20 minutes.
Here’s how to make this creamy lemon pasta:
Cook your pasta. Don’t be afraid to season generously with salt (think ocean water) — it’s crucial for giving your pasta more flavor, and since you’re saving some of that water for your pasta sauce later, you don’t want it to be bland.
Don’t rinse the pasta or the pasta gluten will be rinsed off and the sauce won’t stick to the noodles. Reserve 1/2 cup of pasta water (you will likely just use half that amount, but it’s nice to have extra on-hand if you need it).
Crisp up your ham. Brown the diced ham in some melted butter, then remove it with a slotted spoon and set aside. This will help create a nice, savory fond on the bottom of the pan, which will add more fat and delicious flavor to your cream sauce.
Make the Creamy Sauce
Thicken the cream. Bring the cream to a simmer and let it cook for about 5 minutes (during this time it will reduce and thicken to make a rich base for your creamy sauce).
Add reserved pasta water. The starch from the pasta water works as an excellent thickening agent in creating that silky sauce. Add more pasta water at the end if the sauce feels too thick or cloying.
Add the flavor hitters. Salty-grated Parmesan cheese will effortlessly melt into the sauce, while lemon zest brightens it all up and brings a light freshness to the dish.
Serve It Up
Toss the pasta altogether. Add the pasta, ham, and peas to the sauce and give it a good toss to make sure everything is nice and coated.
Add the finishing touches. To serve, top with more freshly grated Parm, finely chopped chives, and more lemon zest for extra color and flavor in every bite.
Lemon Pasta Substitutions
One of the beautiful things about this pasta recipe is how versatile it is. Here are some ideas for some easy swaps you could try:
- You could use small shells, rigatoni, or bow tie pasta instead of the orecchiette if you prefer.
- Pancetta instead of ham (I don’t recommend bacon though, as it has a stronger, smokier flavor profile that doesn’t complement the light, springy flavors in the dish quite as well.) You could also omit the meat entirely.
- Swap out the cream for mascarpone
- Sub asparagus for the peas
- Use tarragon or basil instead of chives
What to Serve With This Recipe
- Kale Salad With Parmesan and Pine Nuts
- Caprese Salad
- Cucumber Salad With Dill
- Classic Blue Cheese Wedge Salad
- Classic Waldorf Salad
More Creamy Pastas to Try
- Shrimp Pasta with Sun-Dried Tomatoes
- Creamy Instant Pot Mac and Cheese
- Spaghetti alla Carbonara
- Creamy Asparagus & Salmon Pasta
- Mushroom Stroganoff
- Creamy Chicken Pesto Penne with Broccoli
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