TREATING PASTA LIKE RICE SIMPLIFIES EVERYTHING
You’d never guess that pasta primavera, a pseudo-Italian dish that appears on virtually every chain restaurant menu, has its roots at New York’s Le Cirque restaurant, a temple of French haute cuisine. Now, you’re probably thinking that something has been lost in translation since this dish was invented in the 1970s. Well, yes and no.
The typical strip mall reproduction—a random jumble of produce tossed with noodles in a heavy, flavor-deadening cream sauce—tastes nothing like spring. But the original Le Cirque recipe isn’t all that inspiring either, despite taking 2 hours to prepare and dirtying five pans.
There are two main problems with this recipe, no matter its pedigree—the vegetable selection and the cooking method. Most recipes include tomatoes and broccoli, and zucchini and mushrooms are almost as common. None of these vegetables is at its best in spring. And the cooking method for the green vegetables—to blanch each one separately—doesn’t help. Talk about bland.
A smarter approach is to pick vegetables that show up at markets at roughly the same time—leeks and asparagus—and then add peas. (Since fresh peas are rarely good, stick with frozen.) And to make the vegetables shine, use vegetable broth—not cream and butter—to build the backbone of the sauce.
Finally, ditch the multiple pans and turn this into a one-pot recipe where the pasta cooks in the sauce, much like risotto. The flavor of the vegetables is infused into every bite. Best of all, cooking pasta like risotto releases the starches in the noodles and creates a creamy sauce, all without adding a drop of cream or butter. Now that sounds like spring. Talk about taking a good idea and making it better.
WHY THIS RECIPE WORKS
Growing Vegetable Flavor
Chicken broth is typically used as the base of the sauce in primavera, but is it really the best choice? To build multiple levels of vegetable flavor, vegetable broth makes a lot more sense in this dish. To intensify the broth’s flavor, save the trimmings from the leeks and asparagus to simmer in the store-bought broth. Peas and garlic punch up the flavor too.
Blanching Is Boring
Blanching each vegetable separately isn’t just tedious—it’s a poor way to cook the vegetables for this dish because much of the flavor goes down the drain. Instead, sauté the vegetables to concentrate their flavor. And this way, you can punch up their flavor further by adding garlic and red pepper flakes to the pan.
Cook the Pasta Like Rice
Tossing boiled pasta and sautéed vegetables with fortified broth, butter, and cream (the latter two for richness and body) delivers an OK dish. But for extraordinary flavor in every bite, rethink the pasta-cooking method. In risotto, rice is cooked in broth and swells into tender, flavorful grains. Pasta can be cooked this way too—starting by toasting it just as you would with rice before adding white wine (to brighten the sauce) and the broth. Once the liquid is absorbed, the pasta is coated with a light but lustrous, creamy sauce, bursting with vegetable flavor. Even better, this method negates the need for cream and butter, which can dull the vegetable flavor.
A Bright, Flavorful Finish
Sure, grated cheese is a fine finish for this dish, but a potent mix of chopped fresh mint, chives, and grated lemon zest (similar to a gremolata—an Italian condiment used to brighten dishes) will really make this pasta pop. Stir a portion into the hot pasta and serve the rest at the table along with grated Parmesan.
Cook pasta in vegetable broth and then finish with mint, chives, and lemon zest.
Spring Vegetable Pasta
SERVES 4 TO 6
- 30 minutes to make broth (combine herbs and zest while broth simmers)
- 15 minutes to sauté vegetables (can be done while broth simmers)
- 8 minutes to toast pasta and cook off wine
- 10 minutes to cook pasta in broth and combine with other ingredients
- Large saucepan to simmer broth
- Dutch oven to sauté vegetables and cook pasta
- Rasp grater for lemon zest and parmesan
Substitutions & Variations
- Good vegetable broth is key in this recipe. The test kitchen’s favorite brands are Orrington Farms Vegan Chicken Flavored Broth Base (a powder you rehydrate as needed) and Swanson Certified Organic Vegetable Broth.
- You can vary the herbs if you like. Replace the mint with basil or tarragon and try thyme instead the chives. Even plain old parsley can be used in a pinch.
- If you can find fava beans, they make a nice addition to this dish. Replace the 1 cup of peas used in step 3 with an equal amount of freshly cooked and peeled fava beans. (Use the remaining 1 cup peas in step 1; it’s a waste of expensive favas to use them in the broth.)
Campanelle is our pasta of choice in this dish, but farfalle and penne are acceptable substitutes.
- 1½ pounds leeks, white and light green parts halved lengthwise, sliced ½ inch thick, and washed thoroughly; 3 cups coarsely chopped dark green parts, washed thoroughly
- 1 pound asparagus, tough ends trimmed, chopped coarse, and reserved; spears cut on bias into ½-inch lengths
- 2 cups frozen peas, thawed
- 4 garlic cloves, minced
- 4 cups vegetable broth
- 1 cup water
- 2 tablespoons minced fresh mint
- 2 tablespoons minced fresh chives
- ½ teaspoon grated lemon zest plus 2 tablespoons juice
- 6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- Salt and pepper
- ¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes
- 1 pound campanelle
- 1 cup dry white wine
- 1 ounce parmesan cheese, grated (½ cup), plus extra for serving
- Bring leek greens, asparagus trimmings, 1 cup peas, half of garlic, broth, and water to simmer in large saucepan. Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer gently for 10 minutes. While broth simmers, combine mint, chives, and lemon zest in bowl; set aside.
- Strain broth through fine-mesh strainer into large liquid measuring cup, pressing on solids to extract as much liquid as possible (you should have 5 cups broth; add water as needed to measure 5 cups). Discard solids and return broth to saucepan. Cover and keep warm.
- Heat 2 tablespoons oil in Dutch oven over medium heat until shimmering. Add leeks and pinch salt and cook, covered, stirring occasionally, until leeks begin to brown, about 5 minutes. Add asparagus and cook until asparagus is crisp-tender, 4 to 6 minutes. Add pepper flakes and remaining garlic and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add remaining 1 cup peas and continue to cook 1 minute longer. Transfer vegetables to plate and set aside. Wipe out pot.
- Heat remaining ¼ cup oil in now-empty pot over medium heat until shimmering. Add pasta and cook, stirring often, until just beginning to brown, about 5 minutes. Add wine and cook, stirring constantly, until absorbed, about 2 minutes.
- When wine is fully absorbed, add warm broth and bring to boil. Cook, stirring frequently, until most of liquid is absorbed and pasta is al dente, 8 to 10 minutes. Off heat, stir in half of herb mixture, vegetables, lemon juice, and Parmesan. Season with salt and pepper to taste, and serve immediately, passing additional Parmesan and remaining herb mixture separately.
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