Last night we came home famished after a fun afternoon. My growling stomach said “think fast, cook faster.” Dinner had to be satisfying and on the table before I started snacking. A perfect night for pasta primavera.
My version is not so much a recipe as a set of tips. This “recipe” requires only a bag or box of pasta, random vegetables, a few tablespoons of olive oil, salt and pepper, and a few tablespoons of soft goat cheese. If you’ve got a container of goat cheese, sun-dried tomatoes and basil appetizer lurking in the freezer, so much the better, but plain goat cheese works fine too. (The appetizer freezes really well; I try to keep small containers frozen – labeled and dated of course – to pull out for just this type of occasion.)
No measurements here – this is about improvising and ratios. As Michael Ruhlman points out in his cookbook Ratio, the key to much cooking is knowing how to combine ingredients to get the result you seek. I simply gathered available vegetables and figured out how much pasta to use to make the dish well-balanced.
My basic pasta primavera formula is 3 steps, 2 of which are simultaneous: (1) cook pasta; (2) sauté vegetables (cooking them quickly in a pan, using a small amount of oil); and (3) when they are both done, combine them, add a dollop of goat cheese, mix and add a bit of reserved pasta water, salt and pepper. Stir again. Vegans can easily adapt this recipe by skipping the goat cheese.
Boiling the water for pasta starts immediately; when you begin cooking vegetables depends on which vegetables you’ll use. If the pasta gets done before you finish the vegetables, drain it, add a drop of olive oil, and return to the pot until you’re ready to add it to the vegetables.
5 Tips for Great Pasta Primavera
Bite-Sized Vegetables – Without getting obsessive, cutting the pieces relatively small helps them cook quickly and looks nice. The shape, of course, depends on the vegetable. For broccoli and cauliflower, bite-sized that means florets (small pieces of the flowered top, with a bit of stem) and thin slices of thick stem in the case of long-stemmed broccoli, while for carrots it could be small sticks or rounds and for peppers it is sticks, or small rectangles or squares. The sauté pan must be large enough to accommodate them without crowding in the beginning or they will steam and go limp rather than stay crisp. If possible, it should also be large enough to accommodate the pasta in step 3. I use a high-sided 12” pan. (Note to chef-types: yes, I know that sauté pans are supposed to have low, sloping sides.)
Cooking Vegetables in Order – Hard vegetables take longer to cook than soft ones. I inventoried my vegetables: peppers, parboiled broccoli (leftover from the previous evening’s party), sliced olives, mushrooms, artichoke hearts, arugula, and baby spinach. The peppers, mushrooms, arugula and spinach needed to be cooked; everything else just had to be heated. Peppers take about 8-10 minutes to cook, the broccoli florets about 3-5 minutes (they were bright green from being par-boiled, but still too crunchy), the mushrooms even a shorter time, and the arugula and spinach barely any time at all. For raw broccoli or cauliflower, parboil first by throwing the florets and slices in the water boiling for the pasta, then retrieving them after 1-2 minutes at a full boil, using a slotted spoon and setting them aside. Normally, I would douse parboiled veggies in cold water, but here I would leave them steaming because the next step is sautéing them.
Timing is Key – Boiling the pasta water while cutting the vegetables saves time. Lining up cut vegetables, as for stir-fries, helps too. The pan was heated, I added about 2 tablespoons of olive oil and began cooking the vegetables that take the longest. Once the peppers were slightly softened with browned edges, I pushed them aside and added the broccoli. (Carrot pieces and sliced onion would take about the same amount of time as peppers.) At this point, I dumped the pasta into the boiling water, stirred it around, and went back to the pan of vegetables. When the broccoli was done to my taste, I moved the florets and peppers to a bowl, added a bit more oil to the pan and cooked the mushrooms. Then I added all the vegetables that just needed heating, stirred them, and added several handfuls of fresh arugula and baby spinach. In just 1-2 minutes I was ready to add the pasta. After adding the pasta and mixing, I topped it off with a few dollops of the goat cheese and sun-dried tomato mixture, mixed again and added 2 large spoonfuls of pasta water (see below), salt and pepper (and a few dashes of red hot pepper flakes for no good reason except that I was in the mood) and it was ready to serve.
Save Some Pasta Water – Use the boiling pasta water to soften the goat cheese and separate the pasta in the final dish and also to warm the bowls. How you save it is up to you. If you use a colander, you can put the bowls you’ll eat from (one at a time) under the colander as you drain the cooked pasta. Then after it has warmed the bowls, you can ladle out a large spoonful or 2 of the water from one of those bowls into the pan before you throw out the hot water and add the pasta primavera.
Warming the Bowls – If you think warming bowls and plates is too fancy schmantzy, put aside your prejudice and try it. When you put hot food in cold bowl (or on a cold plate), the temperature of the food plummets. Warming the bowl or plate is key to bringing steaming food to the table and keeping it hot as you serve it.
Dinner was ready in the time it took to boil water and cook the pasta. I even had a chance to throw together a quick side salad while the water boiled for the pasta.