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Tuesday, May 24, 2011

It's Spring: Pasta Primavera con Farfalle... Warning: Inauthentic but Delicious!

Butterfly, or farfalle
Photograph courtesy of Frank Rubino
Primavera, in Italian, means spring and this dish is just in time for my favorite season. It is a tasty and colorful dish, perfect for company or for a main dish for supper.  Most everyone has sampled a version of this dish,and almost every Italian restaurant serves one.  However, this is not an Italian dish, not even an Italian-American dish, although it uses Italian ingredients.   According to faux-Italian food history, Pasta Primavera is a completely American dish. It was actually invented in the 1970's at Le Cirque restaurant in Manhattan, supposedly  in response to the growing realization of the importance of a healthier diet, although the chef did add cream!  I found this interesting article about "faux" Italian dishes, pretty interesting, check it out:

There are dozens of versions of Pasta Primavera.  While it is not exactly a light dish, it is usually chock full of any kind of fresh vegetable, raw or lightly cooked, with the addition of fresh herbs, sometimes dressed in a light acidic sauce and topped with grated cheese. I usually do not order this dish in a restaurant, unless it's a really fine one- most versions are usually tasteless and boring, soaked in oil or butter or cream sauce or even, yuck, vinaigrette.

My solution to this was, as always, to create my own, and have made many versions of this dish thoughout the years.  Decades ago, when it was fashionable, I called it Pasta Salad. I made it for every gathering when it was not frigid or snowing, and it came out different every time. I threw in whatever vegetables-du-jour were living in my fridge at the time, and  it usually came out pretty good to great.  I had to be careful though:  most of the time, the vegetables would not be the star of the dish: they were often bland, though raw, crisp or well cooked: they lent color and texture but not much taste. I had to jazz up the sauce so my family and friends would not be underwhelmed by my offering.  I also had to be careful with the pasta: a few minutes of distraction, and they were too soft and broke apart when I attempted to stir in the vegetables and other ingredients. Using the incorrect sort of pasta is also a big problem.  Rigatoni will just break. Spaghetti in any form is a totally different kind of dish, although the original Pasta Primavera was made with spaghetti.    Forget fusilli, those nice little spirals: they look pretty and everyone uses them, but they just don't hold up unless you are willing to bite into too-hard pasta.  I love al dente pasta but when it sticks to my molars, ugh.
Farfalle pasta

After many experimentations, I have found the Farfalle pasta shape to hold up the best. Most people call them bowtie pasta, but Farfalle means butterfly and not bowties.   And they do look like little butterflies!  Bowties, well, boring.  A pasta named after neckwear? Come on!

Alternatively,  though this is best made with Farfalle, Gemelli pasta works pretty well. Gemelli means twin, and Barilla pasta features two thick strands twisted together. It holds up like a trouper, very sturdy with a satisfying bite.  I don't think any other pasta maker has this particular pasta, at least at the local supermarket. So stick with Barilla, for the Farfalle or for the Gemelli.

To solve the problem of boring vegetables and to make them more prominent in the dish, I did some research in my own cookbook library (one of the many items I collect and of which I have way too many) and found in Giada DiLaurentiis's first book, Everyday Italian, some excellent ideas. One novel idea was to roast the vegetables. I found that most recipes call for blanching or even boiling the vegetables.  What are we, in the 50's? Why not used canned for Pete's sake and be done with it! Ugh!

Anyway, I though it was a great idea, since I have been roasting vegetables like crazy lately: roasting caramelizes them and brings out their natural sweetness.  Another great idea she had was to cut the vegetables into similar sized 2 inch strips rather than a large dice that I usually do.    Other than that, my recipe and hers were very similar, after all, it is a pretty simple dish. I did use fresh herbs and dried Sicilian oregano instead of dried, and added crushed red pepper for spice and color.  You can vary the vegetables but stick with the sweet ones: not cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli or cauliflower, brussel sprouts or other strong tasting vegetables, they simply do not roast well. I found this out the hard way! They were quite stinky, actually, and one evening kind of ruined my side dish of roasted vegetables. Never again!  Eggplant will tend to fall apart and be gushy, not a good choice, but zucchini and yellow summer squash will meld with the peppers, carrots, onions and peas and have a fresh, clean taste if not overdone.  Notice, no garlic: I love garlic but I think it gives this dish kind of an off-taste.  It's too out there and masks the bright taste of the vegetables. Also, use COLD al dente pasta, ideally made the day before.  It works better in this dish for some reason. I have done it both ways and I think it keeps the flavors distinct.


So pretty! Yes, all these vegetables
are in this dish
  1 each of red, green and yellow pepper
  3 small zucchini
  1 yellow summer squash
  3 carrots
  1 red onion, halved and sliced
  20 or so cherry or grape tomatoes, halved
  1 10 ounce box of peas
Herbed, and ready to roast

   1 teaspoon dried oregano, Sicilian, or best quality
    5 or 6 fresh basil leaves, chopped or julienned
    Black pepper to taste
   Ground cayenne pepper, to taste
   Crushed red pepper, optional or to taste
   Kosher or sea salt, 1 teaspoon or to taste
   2 or 3 tablespoons fresh parsley, chopped, for garnish

1 pound cold Farfalle or Gemelli pasta, or your choice of sturdy pasta, not over 2 inches long
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil, and more for drizzling at the end, best quality
1/2 cup or so pecorino romano cheese
 Shredded parmigiana cheese, for garnish

Roasted, and at the height of flavor
Slice all vegetables except tomatoes and peas into 2 inch strips. Place in large bowl and add olive oil, stir to coat.  Mix in dried oregano, fresh basil and pepper and place in heavy baking pan.  In a 450 degree oven, bake for about 20 minutes until slightly browned but still somewhat crisp.  Let cool for about a half hour.

Place cold pasta in a large serving bowl.  Mix warm vegetables with the pasta, carefully mix in peas, which are defrosted by now, and add half of the tomatoes.  Add cayenne, and sprinkle sea salt, and then add half the cheese, and check for taste. Add more cheese if necessary. For garnish and taste, add the rest of the tomatoes, the parsley, and sprinkle with more pecorino cheese, and then for the finishing touch, spread the shredded parmigiana cheese over all, and for the extra finishing touch, drizzle a bit of the olive oil either over the entire dish or the individual bowls.   Your family and your guests will thank you, I promise you!