Pasta Primavera is one of our favorite springtime recipes. Primavera means spring in Italian, and this dish is a wonderful example of nature's influence in the art of food. It's light and fresh, a perfect blend of pasta, vegetables, colors and aromatics. It's a dish that caters to the creative cook, as you can vary the vegetables, pasta noodles, and even the sauce to reflect your mood and make the dish your own.
It also comes with an interesting back story. Pasta Primavera was created in the late 1970s at the famed New York City French restaurant, Le Cirque, and was promptly hailed by the New York Times as "by far, the most talked-about dish in Manhattan." This much we know, but dig a little deeper and it becomes difficult to find a definitive story about the origins of this dish.
Some sources attribute its creation to a collaboration of Sirio Maccioni, Le Cirque's owner, Ed Giobbi, an American artist and cook, and Jean Vergnes, Le Cirque's then-head chef. Other reports credit Maccioni's wife, Egidiana, with the idea. Some foodies muse that the mystery of its origin speaks to a larger story about a culinary culture war between Italy (Maccioni) and France (Chef Vergne).
Oddly, though wildly popular at Le Cirque, this dish was never featured on the restaurant's menu, a fact which may lend credence to the legend that Chef Vergnes so disliked this dish, he insisted his cooks prepare it in the hallway. Even Maccioni's own story has changed over the years. What is not disputed is the fact that this humble dish left its mark on the American culinary world in a big way.
Our recipe differs from the original dish as we lean toward an Italian culinary point-of-view (go Italy!), embracing olive oil over cream, penne noodles over spaghetti, and a different combination of vegetables.
We recommend taking a simple and consistent approach to this dish. While you may vary the type of pasta noodles, it's important to match the cut of the vegetables to the shape of the pasta. For long noodles like spaghetti, linguini and fettuccine, cut the vegetables in long, thin strips, julienne style. For shorter, fatter noodles, cut the vegetables in smaller pieces to better complement the pasta.
Tony cannot stress enough the importance of seasoning the pasta water with salt, a step often overlooked by home cooks. Add at least one to two tablespoons of kosher salt to the water before it reaches a boiling point. Throw in the pasta and cook until al dente, an Italian term that means "to the tooth," and is described as "having a firm bite."
Olive oil is a key component of this dish, so use a good quality, extra-virgin variety. A good guideline when cooking the vegetables is to begin with those that will require more cooking time, such as carrots and onions. Add other vegetables, like mushrooms, peas and tomatoes later, after deglazing the pan with white wine. Leafy items, like spinach, should be held until the end, as they wilt quickly. And always use fresh Parmesan cheese to garnish.
We're sharing our own version of Pasta Primavera today, but encourage you to play around with it and get creative at home. Who knows? You just might create a dish great enough to inspire a legend or two.
1 pound penne pasta, cooked al dente - see instructions on package
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
½ cup red onion, sliced ½-inch thick in half-moon strips
3 cloves garlic, minced
½ teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
½ cup carrot, cut into ¼-inch sticks, 2 inches long
½ cup white wine
1 cup crimini or button mushrooms, quartered
1 cup sugar snap peas, whole
1 cup tomatoes, diced
½ cup water
2 cups fresh spinach leaves, stems removed
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
½ cup Parmesan cheese, grated
1 teaspoon kosher salt
½ teaspoon black pepper
½ cup basil, cut julienne style, to garnish
Sauté the red onion and olive oil over medium to low heat for two to three minutes until the onion starts to soften. Add garlic, crushed red pepper flakes and carrots, and cook for two more minutes.
Deglaze the pan with white wine and cook over medium heat for three to four minutes until the wine is reduced by half (this process removes the flavor bits from the bottom of the pan and incorporates them into the sauce).
Add the mushrooms, sugar snap peas and tomatoes and cook for two to three minutes over medium-low heat. Add pasta noodles and water, stirring the mixture to coat all the pieces. Add the spinach and continue cooking for one to two minutes until spinach starts to wilt.
Add the butter, Parmesan cheese, salt and pepper and mix together well. To serve, garnish with basil, more Parmesan cheese, and a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil.
Tony's Tip: Always season your pasta water with salt before adding the pasta. A good guideline is at least one tablespoon of kosher salt for every four quarts of water.
This column was written exclusively for The Forum.
Home with the Lost Italian is a weekly column written by Sarah Nasello featuring recipes by her husband, Tony Nasello. The couple owns Sarello's restaurant in Moorhead and lives in Fargo with their 8-year-old son, Giovanni. Readers can reach them at email@example.com.