Baton Rouge, La. In spite of its Italian name and near classic status, pasta primavera is not a dish from the Old Country. It was created by New York City chef-restaurateur Sirio Maccioni.
Maccioni owns Le Cirque 2000, a renowned French restaurant in Manhattan. According to food historian and restaurant critic John Mariani, Maccioni was entertaining a group of chefs in 1975 at a hunting camp in Canada. It had been a long evening, everyone was ravenous but no one wanted to eat anything too heavy because of the late hour.
Maccioni went into the kitchen, grabbed a bunch of fresh vegetables and made up two sauces a cream sauce and a fresh tomato sauce. He steamed the vegetables, and served them and the sauces over fettuccine.
The dish was a sensation.
Maccioni dubbed it pasta primavera it's a wonderfully light evocation of sunshine and spring growth, and "primavera" means spring in Italian. He put it on his restaurant's menu, where it was soon the most popular item and was copied everywhere.
With the Lenten season now under way, this vegetable dish seems just right for late winter dinner tables.
Pasta primavera is not a quick-fix dish, but it is adaptable. Use whatever vegetables you like. The original Le Cirque recipe calls for steaming the vegetables; more recent variations suggest roasting them. Try both and see which you prefer.
If you choose to roast the vegetables, it's best to use a firmer pasta, such as penne or shell, because the roasted vegetables are heavier and will overwhelm thin spaghetti or fettuccine.
It's important to cut the fresh vegetables into uniform-size pieces. You can't expect carrot chunks, for instance, to cook in the same amount of time as a delicate snow pea. If you don't want to be cooking vegetables in steps or separate batches, consider the size, texture and cooking time of the vegetable combination you choose.
Recipes for three variations of pasta primavera follow.
I prefer the classic steamed vegetable version, Pasta Alla Primavera, which looks like a green vegetable bouquet to me. The roasted vegetable version, dubbed Grilled Vegetable Primavera here, is heavier, and the sauce is cheesier. The Lighter Pasta Primavera's sauce is broth-based rather than cream-based.
Children usually prefer the roasted vegetable version.
Pasta Alla Primavera
1 cup sliced zucchini
1 cup sliced broccoli
6-ounce package frozen snow peas
1 cup frozen baby green peas
6 asparagus spears, sliced
10 white mushrooms, sliced
1 heaping tablespoon salt, preferably kosher
1 pound fettuccine
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/3 cup pignoli (pine nuts)
2 teaspoons minced garlic
1/2 cup chopped flat-leaf parsley
freshly ground black pepper and additional salt, to taste
1/2 cup freshly shredded Parmesan cheese
5 1/2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 cup whipping cream
1/3 cup chopped fresh basil or 1 tablespoon dried sweet basil flakes
2 tomatoes, coarsely chopped
Fit a steamer basket or mesh colander into a large pot. Add a small amount of water to the pot and bring to a boil.
Place the zucchini, broccoli, snow peas, baby peas, asparagus and mushrooms in the colander, cover, and steam until tender, about 3 minutes. Rinse the vegetables under cold water and allow to drain in the colander.
If you couldn't get fresh basil, sprinkle the dried sweet basil flakes over the steamed vegetables as they drain. (If you have fresh basil, add it later, as indicated.) Cover the colander so the dried basil will hydrate in the moisture from the cooling vegetables.
Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add the salt and the fettuccine. Cook until al dente.
Meanwhile, in a cast-iron skillet, heat 1 tablespoon olive oil over medium heat. Add the pignoli and garlic and cook, stirring, until they begin to turn golden, 2 to 3 minutes. Add the remaining 1 tablespoon olive oil and the steamed vegetables. Next, add the parsley and salt and pepper to taste. Cook until all the ingredients are heated through, 2 to 3 minutes.
Drain the fettuccine and pour it into a bowl. Pour the vegetables over the fettuccine.
In a separate sautan, heat the Parmesan cheese, butter, cream and fresh basil, if using. Heat thoroughly to blend the cheese and cream. Pour this cream sauce over the vegetables and pasta and toss. Scatter chopped tomatoes on top. Serve immediately.
Makes 6 servings.
Recipe adapted from "The Italian American Cookbook" by John Mariani and Galina Mariani.
Grilled Vegetable Primavera
2 yellow squash, cut lengthwise into long sticks
2 zucchini, cut lengthwise into long sticks
2 carrots, peeled and cut diagonally into chips
1 sweet onion, quartered and separated
1 red bell pepper, seeded and cut lengthwise into quarters
3 tablespoons reduced-calorie Italian dressing
8 ounces uncooked penne pasta
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
12-ounce can evaporated milk
2 ounces (about 1/4 cup) Neufchatel light cream cheese
1/4 cup shredded mozzarella cheese
2 tablespoons shredded or grated fresh Parmesan cheese
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon cracked black pepper
Combine squash, zucchini, carrots, onion and bell pepper in a large bowl. Toss with Italian dressing.
Pour vegetables into a foil-lined baking pan and roast in the oven over medium-high heat, 350 to 400 degrees, 5 to 7 minutes or until tender, turning occasionally. Cool vegetables slightly and chop coarsely; set aside.
Cook pasta according to package directions, omitting salt and oil; drain.
Place flour in a cast-iron skillet; gradually add evaporated milk, stirring until well blended. Cook over medium heat until slightly thick, stirring constantly. Add cheeses, salt and pepper, stirring with a wire whisk until cheeses melt. Add chopped vegetables to the skillet of cheese sauce and stir to heat the vegetables through.
Pour the vegetables and cheese sauce over the pasta in a bowl; toss gently to coat. Serve immediately.
Makes 4 servings.
Nutrition information per serving: 430 cal., 8.4 g fat, 23 mg chol., 607 mg sodium.
Recipe adapted from "Discover Dinnertime" by Susan Dosier and Julia Dowling Rutland.
Lighter Pasta Primavera
6 ounces green beans, cut into 3/4-inch pieces (about 1 1/4 cups)
12 medium asparagus spears, tough ends snapped off, halved lengthwise, and cut diagonally into 3/4-inch pieces
1 medium zucchini, cut into 1/2-inch dice
1 cup frozen peas, thawed
4 tablespoons olive oil
8 ounces white mushrooms, sliced thin (about 4 cups)
4 large plum tomatoes (about 1 pound), peeled, cored and chopped coarsely (about 2 cups)
1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes, optional
1/2 cup canned low-sodium chicken broth
1 pound fettuccine
2 medium garlic cloves, minced
2 tablespoons softened unsalted butter
1/4 cup shredded fresh basil leaves
1 1/2 tablespoons juice from 1 lemon
fresh Parmesan cheese, grated
Add 1 tablespoon salt to about 3 quarts water in a large pot, bring to boil. Cook green beans, asparagus, zucchini and peas in boiling water about 1 1/2 minutes or until tender. Remove vegetables, place in colander and run cold water over them to stop the cooking. Let the vegetables drain well.
Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in skillet over medium-high heat. Add mushrooms and sautntil browned. Add tomatoes and red pepper flakes, reduce heat to medium and simmer until tomatoes begin to lose their shape, about 7 minutes. Stir in chicken broth and heat through. Cover to keep warm; set aside.
Bring 6 quarts water and 1 tablespoon salt to boil in a large stockpot for pasta. Cook pasta according to package directions until al dente. Drain.
While pasta is cooking, heat remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil in skillet, add garlic and sautntil fragrant and very lightly colored, about 1 minute. Add blanched vegetables and cook until heated through and infused with garlic flavor, about 2 minutes. Season to taste with salt; set aside.
Meanwhile, bring mushroom-tomato sauce back to simmer over medium heat. Swirl 2 tablespoons softened butter into the mushroom-tomato sauce. Pour mushroom-tomato sauce over pasta in a bowl and toss well to coat. Add vegetables, fresh basil, lemon juice and season to taste with salt. Toss well. Serve immediately with freshly grated Parmesan cheese to sprinkle on top.
Makes 6 servings.
Recipe from Cook's Illustrated magazine, May/June 1999.