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blog-pasta primavera

Given the hard winter and cold, snowy spring we’ve had in the Northeast, the growing season is weeks behind schedule. Heaven knows when we’ll see the first local asparagus and peas—let alone tender, slender green beans and (dare to dream!) sun-ripened tomatoes. In other words, a visit to the farmers market is more about foraging than shopping.

So for a dinner party last week, I thanked my lucky stars for the too-often-unsung bounty at my local supermarket. Asparagus and green beans have become, for better or worse, seasonless—a quality held in high esteem ever since there have been market gardeners—and frozen baby peas (I’m a Birds Eye girl) are more consistently sweet, tender, and less starchy than the vast majority of “fresh” peas available in season. Plus, a bottle of dried morels has been burning a hole in my pantry, so to speak, ever since Christmas. Admittedly, they are a luxury, but their nutty earthiness plays beautifully with other flavors without overwhelming them, and they have a famous affinity for cream sauces.

Pasta primavera has undeniable glamour and a provenance to match: It was introduced in the 1970s at Le Cirque, in New York City, and soon became the pasta dish of the moment. It makes an elegant first course for a crowd and is substantial enough for a vegetarian main course.

Don’t let the long ingredient list below throw you: Chopping is about as complicated as the prep work gets, assembly is a snap, and permutations will make the dish your own. Substitute strozzapreti or other short, curvaceous pasta shape for the spaghettini, for instance, or skip the pasta entirely and stir the fixings into a pot of risotto. If there are no good-looking green beans to be had, zucchini will do nicely. If time is an issue, rein things in in a way that works for you. One step that does make a difference, though, is cooking the tomatoes and vinegar into a quick little sauce. It adds a hit of fresh-tasting acidity that you’d miss if it weren’t there.

Pasta Primavera

From The Gourmet Cookbook (Houghton Mifflin, 2004)

Serves 10 as a first course, 6 as a main course

1 oz dried morel mushrooms
1 1/2 cups warm water
1/2 lb asparagus, trimmed and cut into 1-inch pieces
1/4 lb green beans (preferably haricots verts), trimmed and cut into 1-inch pieces
3/4 cup frozen baby peas, thawed
2 teaspoons minced garlic, divided
Rounded 1/2 teaspoon dried hot red pepper flakes, divided
4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided
1 1/2 pints grape tomatoes
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
3 tablespoons water
1 lb spaghettini (thin spaghetti)
1/2 stick 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
1/3 cup pine nuts, lightly toasted
Garnish: Parmigiano-Reggiano shavings

Prepare green vegetables: Soak morels in warm water in a small bowl 30 minutes. Lift mushrooms out of water, squeezing excess liquid back into bowl. Pour soaking liquid through a sieve lined with a dampened paper towel into a small bowl and reserve. Rinse morels thoroughly to remove grit, then squeeze dry. Discard any tough stems. Halve small morels lengthwise and quarter larger ones.

Cook asparagus and beans in a 6- to 8-quart pot of boiling salted water, uncovered, 3 minutes. Add peas and cook until beans and asparagus are just tender, about 1 to 2 minutes more. Immediately transfer vegetables with a large slotted spoon to a bowl of ice water to stop cooking, reserving hot water in pot for cooking pasta. Drain cooled vegetables in a colander.

Cook 1 teaspoon garlic and a rounded 1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes in 2 tablespoons oil in a 10- to 12-inch heavy skillet over moderately low heat, stirring, just until garlic is fragrant, about 1 minute. Add drained vegetables and salt and pepper to taste and cook, stirring, 2 minutes, then transfer to a bowl. Reserve skillet.

Cook tomatoes: Cut half of tomatoes into quarters and halve remainder lengthwise, keeping quarters and halves separate. Cook remaining teaspoon garlic and remaining rounded 1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes in remaining 2 tablespoons oil in skillet over moderately low heat, stirring, just until garlic is fragrant, about 1 minute. Add quartered tomatoes with salt and pepper to taste and simmer, stirring occasionally, until tomatoes are softened, about 3 minutes. Add halved tomatoes, vinegar, and water and simmer, stirring occasionally, until sauce is thickened and halved tomatoes are softened, 3 to 4 minutes. Keep tomatoes warm.

Cook pasta and assemble dish: While tomatoes are cooking, return water in pot to a boil and cook pasta until al dente. Drain in a colander. Immediately add butter, cream, zest, and morels to empty pasta pot and simmer gently, uncovered, 2 minutes. Stir in cheese and add pasta, tossing to coat and adding as much of reserved morel soaking liquid as necessary (1/2 to 2/3 cup) to keep pasta well coated. Add green vegetables, parsley, basil, pine nuts, and salt and pepper to taste and toss gently to combine. Serve pasta topped with tomatoes and Parmigiano-Reggiano shavings.

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