I find it very hard to imagine that prior to 1975, nobody in the history of the universe had thought to combine fresh spring vegetables and pasta in a creamy sauce, but, if we are to believe Sirio Maccioni, chef of New York's famed Le Cirque, it's the truth. At least, nobody famous enough to take a good idea and turn it into an international sensation. Sirio put it on the menu, and pasta primavera—"spring pasta"—quickly became part of our cultural lexicon.
Since then, pasta primavera has become a staple menu item across the spectrum of restaurants, from fancy places using handmade pasta and seasonal spring vegetables to chains that serve it year-round alongside bottomless baskets of breadsticks.
The original Le Cirque version of the dish is a complicated affair, as all fancy restaurant food tends to be. I've found two printed versions online. This one was first published in 1977, in a Craig Claiborne article for the New York Times, and presumably it's how the dish was first introduced to the greater public. In 1991, Florence Fabricant published another version that's even more complicated, requiring a half dozen different pots and pans to complete. Ah, the old days, back when a newspaper's idea of "adapting" a restaurant recipe for a home cook was translating the Italian into English.
Both versions contain spring vegetables, along with mushrooms, garlic, tomatoes, basil, cheese, and cream, plus some toasted pine nuts. I made a sort of hybridized version of the Le Cirque dish, and found that I actually wasn't particularly enamored of it. I did really love the idea of pine nuts, which are not common in other popular, modern recipes. Tomatoes seemed out of place in a spring dish, and I thought the mushrooms, while tasty, distracted a bit from the green vegetables. My version would have to be a little simpler and cleaner.
At the opposite extreme, copycat recipes for chain restaurant–style pasta primavera are simple enough (typically one- or two-pot dishes), but there's absolutely nothing springlike about them, with a jumbled mix of dried herbs, carrots, tomatoes, zucchini, and other anything-but-spring-grown additions.
When I hear "spring," what I really hear is green, you know?
To make a dish that screams spring, I decided to load mine up with all the green vegetables I could find.
Whole English peas and fava beans, short lengths of asparagus, trimmed snap peas, and young, crunchy broccolini were what I found at the market, though fiddleheads, fresh garbanzos, and snow peas could easily have fit in as well. I prepared all the vegetables according to my guide: blanched them in a pot of salted water, then shocked them in an ice bath before carefully drying them on paper towels. I found that blanching produced a better, fresher flavor in the finished dish than sautéing the vegetables did, and, as we've discovered in the past, most of the tried-and-true rules of big-pot blanching bear out in testing.
Once the vegetables were blanched, I dumped out the pot and refilled it with fresh water to cook my pasta. It's possible to cook the pasta right in the same pot without changing the water, but if you do that, the pigments released by the vegetables cause the pasta to come out dull in color. With a dish like this, bright colors are just as important as intense flavors.
For the sauce, I wanted a touch of garlic flavor, but not the overload you get from adding actual minced garlic to the dish. Instead, I smashed a couple of cloves of garlic with the side of my knife, then gently cooked them in butter to infuse it, discarding the actual cloves before adding the pasta and vegetables. In order to streamline the process, I also added the pine nuts directly to the pot with the garlic, toasting them lightly as the garlic infused. I was a little worried that the butter would brown before the nuts could toast properly, but it all worked out just fine in multiple tests, provided I stirred and kept things moving.
As the garlic and pine nuts finished toasting, I cooked up my pasta. This recipe works fine with dried pasta, but I prefer the chewier texture of fresh egg pasta here. Traditionally, long, thin noodles are the pasta of choice for pasta primavera, but since all of my vegetables were cut into slender slices, it made much more sense for me to use a pasta of similar length and width. Penne, gemelli, and rotini all fit the bill. (Though, honestly, use whatever you like. Nobody's gonna stop you.)
I know that pasta primavera is supposed to have a rich, cream-based sauce, but no matter how much I adjusted the ratios of cream and cheese, I couldn't get over the fact that the bright spring vegetables felt smothered and muted when served with a creamy sauce. The revelation came when I looked at a more modern New York Times recipe from Melissa Clark, which uses crème fraîche in place of heavy cream.
I tossed the pasta and vegetables with the garlic butter, pine nuts, crème fraîche, and some reserved pasta water until everything was nice and creamy.
The tangy acidity of crème fraîche, paired with a shot of lemon juice and a little lemon zest, provided the same creamy, pasta-coating consistency that you'd get from heavy cream, but with a flavor that complemented, rather than muted, the bright vegetables. The only other thing the dish needed was a handful of chopped fresh parsley and basil, and a shower of Parmigiano-Reggiano added off heat.
For a dish with a history of less than half a century, it sure tastes like it was always meant to be. Can you think of anything you'd rather eat on a warm May evening? Nothing...springs to mind.