Taste of Spring: Pasta Primavera
It is funny how one little pasta dinner is the cause of serious debate and unfavorable opinions. After all, pasta primavera simply is pasta prepared with delicately cooked vegetables. What is so serious about that? Well, Pasta Primavera’s origin for one, and its popularity for another.
A Brief History of Pasta Primavera
This pasta specialty is not of Italian origin, but is a 1975 American creation either at Le Cirque in NY City, or in Nova Scotia with a Le Cirque chef/owner connection, (Wikipedia). The recipe’s fame started at Le Cirque where customers could special order the meal because it was not on the menu. Amanda Hesser’s 2009 article in the NY Times, states Jean Vergens, then chef at Le Cirque, hated the dish so much he refused to allow Pasta Primavera cooked in Le Cirque’s kitchen. In order to satisfy their costumers, the staff had to cook the dish in the hallway.
What is not of debate is, Craig Claiborne and Pierre Franey’s article about Le Cirque’s recipe in the New York Times, made Pasta Primavera famous. Unfortunately, the fame of pasta primavera help create its’ loss of appeal. Across America, Italian American restaurants served Pasta Primavera. This crossover from a secret meal specially prepared, to mainstream America changed its identity. How can pasta with vegetables taste bad? It can when mediocre restaurants take over the pasta primavera market, (Hesser, A. New York Times 2009). Unfortunately, a meal created using French and Italian cooking techniques, became ordinary in the mass production.
Pasta Primavera Done Right
I like my pasta dishes with an abundance of extra ingredients mixed with some pasta, not the other way around. Depending on the recipe, pasta is a foundation for vegetables and sauces to stand out. Preparing pasta with good technique and consideration for the ingredients, creates food that is fresh tasting and has good structure and texture. A pasta dinner becomes a light and comforting meal. Pasta primavera is no exception. Primavera means spring and the vegetables and sauce should reflect a meal with fresh green vegetables with a light sauce. A rich and heavy sauce will overwhelm the vegetables and drain one’s energy.
This recipe is from Cooks Illustrated and, like a lot of their recipes, has a lot of steps. However, these steps help build flavor and develop a creamy sauce without a trace of cream. Even still, this recipe has 6 steps and the original Le Cirque recipe has 10, so fortunately, it is not as involved as the original.
What makes Cook’s Illustrated recipe so different? The pasta is prepared like risotto. This technique develops lightly toasted pasta with a nutty flavor. Additionally, this technique produces a silky and creamy texture and a double layer of flavor from the vegetables.
I slightly adapted the recipe by adding mushrooms and lightly toasting the pasta. It is my experience the pasta does not toast evenly in a Dutch oven. It is too deep and therefore, you get an uneven toasting. However, it is convenient to cook this recipe in a Dutch oven, otherwise I need an extra-large sauté pan or more pans. My focus is on the flavors of the vegetables and creating a silky-smooth textured sauce. Because I like the flavor of this recipe so much, I decided not to eliminate the step altogether and just pared it down. I was concerned the luscious texture would not be the same without this step.
As the name suggests, Pasta Primavera is a spring meal overflowing with vegetables. Also contributing to the lively spring flavor are wine, lemon juice, and fresh herbs. This is one of the freshest tasting pasta primavera recipes I’ve had. It is a lovely spring melody of asparagus, peas, mushrooms, leeks, and fresh herbs. It is clear the vegetables are the star of the show.
Gluten-Free Pasta Primavera
A note for a gluten-free version of this recipe. It is my experience that gluten-free pasta breaks down when prepared following the risotto style directions. The result is an unappealing pile of mushy pasta with your delicious vegetables. I recommend substituting the recipe’s method of cooking pasta, and follow the directions given with your favorite gluten-free pasta. I am not certain why my quinoa pasta turned to mush, but it seems a gluten protein structure keeps the pasta shape intact.
You will need less stock and only add it to braise the vegetables. Lightly, cook the vegetables for less time, in a 12-inch skillet or sauté pan. Then, add some vegetable stock and wine and gently braise the vegetables until they are crisp tender. If you wish, just before serving, swirl in a couple of tablespoons of butter to the vegetables for a silkier sauce.
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Spring Pasta Primavera
- 3 medium leeks halved lengthwise, washed then sliced into 1/4 inch slices
- 1 lb asparagus 453 g
- 2 cups 330 g frozen peas, defrosted
- 8 about 100 g white mushrooms, sliced
- 4 medium garlic cloves
- 4 cups 1 liter vegetable broth
- 1 cup water 250 ml
- 2 TB fresh mint minced
- 2 TB fresh chives minced
- 1/2 tsp fine lemon zest plus 2 TB lemon juice
- 5 TB Extra virgin olive oil
- Kosher Salt
- 1/4 tsp red pepper flakes
- 1 pound 453 g pasta, like farfalle, penne, campanelle
- 1 cup 250 ml dry white wine
- 1 oz 31 g grated Romano or Parmesan cheese
- Freshly ground black pepper
Prep the vegetables:
Trim off the tough ends from the asparagus. Rough chop the tough fibrous ends and put into a large sauce pan. Cut the spears on the bias into one inch (2.5 cm) pieces. Set the trimmed spears aside.
Wash and trim off the dark green parts of the leeks and add to the pot with the tough asparagus ends. Slice lengthwise down the middle of each leek. Wash each half making sure all the dirt is washed off between the layers of the leeks. Dry them with a clean cloth and slice each half into thin half-moons. Set aside.
Defrost the peas and divide into 2-one cup (250 ml) portions.
Enhance the broth
Add the dark green leek trimmings and 1 cup of the peas to the pot with the asparagus trimmings. Add the vegetable broth and one cup of the water. Turn the heat to medium-high heat and bring the stock to a simmer. Turn down the heat and simmer the vegetables in the broth for about 10 minutes. Drain the vegetables from the stock through a fine mesh strainer over an 8-cup measuring cup or large bowl. Press down on the vegetables to extract as much of the juices as possible. Discard the vegetables and add more water to make 5 cups of stock. Return the stock to the sauce pan and keep warm on low heat.
While you are waiting for the stock to finish, mix the lemon zest, minced mint and chives into a small bowl. Set aside.
Cook the Vegetable Medley
Add 2 TB extra virgin olive oil to a Dutch oven and set the stove to medium high. When the oil shimmers, add the leeks and a pinch of Kosher salt. Stir to evenly coat the vegetables in olive oil. Cook the leeks until soft and just starting to brown about 4-5 minutes. Add the sliced mushrooms and cook for 2-3 minutes. Add the trimmed asparagus and cook for 4-5 minutes until just tender, but still has a crispy bite. Add the red pepper flakes and minced garlic, stir and cook for around 30 seconds. Add the peas, stir and cook for about 1 minute. Taste the vegetables and add more salt if needed. Turn off the heat and spoon the cooked vegetable medley onto a plate. Reverse.
Cook the Pasta
Wipe out the Dutch oven and add 3 Tb extra virgin olive oil. When the oil begins to shimmer, add the pasta, stir and cook for about 2 minutes stirring constantly.
Add the wine and cook until the wine has dissolved. Stir frequently while the wine is reducing.
Add the vegetable stock. Turn the heat up to bring the stock to a light boil, then turn the heat down to medium. Frequently stir the pasta and cook until the pasta is al dente and has absorbed most of the stock. 10-12 minutes.
Putting it all together
Once the pasta is cooked al dente, turn off the heat and add the lemon juice, 1 oz (31 g) grated Romano cheese, and half the reserved minced herbs. Stir the pasta until the cheese is evenly combined. Add the vegetables and stir. Season with Kosher salt, ground pepper.
Serve immediately and garnish with remaining herbs and Romano cheese.
If you use store-bought vegetable stock, use one that is not predominately made with carrots or winter squash. The stock will look orange and so will everything you cook it with. There are many vegetable stocks on the market and all taste different depending on the vegetables used to make it. (This is one reason why I make vegetable stock). I cannot deny the convenience of store-bought stock, but I encourage you to read the ingredients so you know what you are getting.
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