By Charles Oppman
A Rite of Spring – Pasta Primavera
Now that spring is in full swing we’re likely to see the seasonal springtime dish pasta primavera on Italian restaurant menus across America. It just makes sense―the word primavera means “spring” in Italian. But what is pasta primavera exactly, and what’s its culinary history? Let’s begin with the heart of the dish, the pasta.
Long before they invented the mechanical clock, gunpowder and paper, the Chinese invented noodles, which would come to be called pasta, “dough” in Italian.
Although the origin of pasta evokes much speculation, many historians credit the 13th century explorer, Marco Polo, with bringing pasta to Italy from China. During his 17 years in China the Venetian merchant probably dined with the likes of Kublai Khan, Polo must have sampled a variety of Asian pastas, which were generally made with rice flour or millet. The Chinese began using wheat for noodles about 3000 BC. The medieval Chinese didn’t eat dry strands of pasta like we do today. Instead they cooked fresh pasta.
Pasta primavera is an Italian-American dish―created in New York City in the 1970s― consisting of pasta and fresh vegetables. There is no one recipe for this dish. It may contain almost any kind of vegetable, but cooks tend to stick to firm, crisp vegetables, such as broccoli, carrots, peas, onions and green, red or yellow bell peppers, with tomatoes. Pasta primavera is usually highlighted by light flavors, aromatic herbs and bright colors. A seasonal addition would be fresh asparagus, which is inexpensive and plentiful during the spring season.
Chicken, sausage or seafood may be added, but the star of the dish is always the vegetables. A Classic primavera sauce is based on a soffritto (the Italian version of a French mirepoix) of garlic and olive oil, and finished with freshly grated Parmesan cheese. Rich Alfredo-style cream sauces may used to enrich the dish. The choices of pastas with this dish are typically smaller shapes, such as penne, farfel, rigatoni and fusilli. If using longer like spaghetti or fettuccine, the vegetables are cut in julienne style, or thin strips, to match the shape of the noodles.
1 1/2 cups warm water
1/2 lb asparagus, trimmed and cut into 1-inch pieces
1/4 lb green beans (preferably French haricots verts), trimmed and cut into 1-inch pieces
3/4 cup frozen baby peas, thawed
2 teaspoons minced garlic
1/2 teaspoon dried hot red pepper flakes
4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 pint grape tomatoes
1 lb farfel pasta
1/4 cup unsalted butter
2/3 cup heavy cream
1 teaspoon finely grated fresh lemon zest
1 cup finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
1/4 cup finely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
1/4 cup finely chopped fresh basil
Garnish: Parmigiano-Reggiano shavings
1. Blanch green beans in boiling, salted water for 3 minutes. Cook beans first since they take the longest. Add peas and asparagus and cook until just tender, about 1 to 2 minutes more. Immediately strain vegetables and transfer to a bowl of ice water to halt the cooking process, reserving hot water in pot for cooking pasta. Drain chilled vegetables in a colander.
2. Cook 1 teaspoon garlic and 1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes in 2 tablespoons oil in a large, heavy skillet over moderately low heat, stirring just until garlic is wilted, about 1 minute. Stir garlic and add drained vegetables and salt and pepper to taste and cook, stirring, 2 minutes, then transfer to a bowl. Reserve skillet.