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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