Where once I'd pounce on a chef-made bowl of al dente pasta and crisp-tender spring vegetables, now it is a dish I prefer to make at home. Using what is fresh and new at the market, I slice and dice carrots, bell peppers, peas, spring onions, and baby Broccolini before tossing them into a pot to quickly cook with penne pasta.
Finished with bright and citrusy lemon butter and a sprinkle of Parmesan cheese, this springtime supper is perfection. And the best part? I can enjoy it from the comfort of my own porch — no restaurant required.
What Is Pasta Primavera?
Unsurprisingly, the 1970s lay claim to the "invention" of this pasta and vegetable dish. After the decades where condensed soup casseroles ruled at home, and rich French cuisine was the go-to in restaurants, the pendulum finally swung the other way. Disco-era chefs in New York looked to Italy for inspiration, where families had combined fresh spring vegetables with pasta for generations. The word "primavera" means springtime in Italian. In an era before seasonal cooking was commonplace, pasta primavera was the recipe to order for the best and brightest of spring vegetables.
Early incarnations of this dish call for an Alfredo-like sauce, which I find too heavy and overwhelming for tender spring vegetables. Instead, brighten the starch-thickened sauce with some lemon and a handful of Parmesan cheese. As the penne cooks, the noodles peek out from the diminishing water level, thickening the liquid with the pasta's starch. This starchy liquid is the beginning of a light, silky sauce. Stir the garlic-lemon butter in until it melts into a lemony sauce, lightly dressing the pasta and vegetables.
For Your Information
- We call for a variety of winter and spring vegetables that add variety in texture, color, and flavor, but this is just a guide. Toss in any spring variety that catches your eye during your weekly market shop. The key to pasta primavera is using the freshest vegetables available.
- Mix this vegetable and pasta dish in a large Dutch oven or pasta pot. It is chock-full of vegetables and you'll need more room than you think to stir them together.
- Mash garlic, lemon zest, and butter together to stir into the starchy cooking liquid to make a light sauce. A sprinkling of Parmesan adds just the right level saltiness.
For Better Primavera Make Everything the Same Size
The primary pasta primavera pitfalls are oversized and undercooked vegetables and long strands of spaghetti slipping through your fork.
The key is to cut the vegetables down to a size where they cook together quickly. Take carrots and sweet English peas: Typically carrots take longer to cook than the peas, so here we're thinly slicing the carrots, cutting them thinner and smaller so they cook in the same two minutes as the rest of the vegetables. As a rule of thumb, trim vegetables to 1/2- to 1-inch pieces. If in doubt, set your knife down and simply consider how that vegetable will fit on your fork.
We also find that a better way to serve pasta primavera means swapping the traditional strands of angel hair pasta for a short pasta, such as penne rigate, fusilli, or orecchiette. The long strands of angel hair are incompatible with chunky bites of vegetables, while the short shapes mimic the size of the trimmed vegetables and cook in just eight to 10 minutes.
Key Steps for Pasta Primavera
- Make a garlic-lemon butter. Mash the garlic and salt into a paste with the side of your knife. The sharp flavor of the garlic is tempered, making it rounder, sweeter, and less pungent. And since you won't be cooking the garlic — it simply melts in at the end of cooking — you won't feel the pungent heat that you normally experience from eating raw garlic. Stir in butter and lemon zest until combined. This is the foundation of the light, lemony sauce that ties the dish together at the end.
- Cook the pasta. After sautéing shallots, add the pasta, hot water, and salt to a large pot (yes, grab a pot that you think is too large — you'll need extra room, as the pasta expands and for the armloads of vegetables added at the end). Bring it to a boil then cook the pasta until al dente. Keep a casual eye on the pasta, stirring occasionally to make sure the noodles don't stick to the bottom of the pot. This reduced portion of pasta cooking water is on purpose, as the starchy liquid is the base of the sauce.
- Add the vegetables. With the vegetables cut down to size, they should all cook in about two minutes. Pluck a few pieces out and taste. You'll know the dish is ready to serve when the vegetables brighten in color and their texture is crisp-tender.
- Finish with tomatoes, cheese, and garlic-lemon butter. To keep the tomatoes intact, stir them in at the end with a handful of Parmesan cheese and the garlic-lemon butter. The butter melts into the starchy cooking liquid, marrying pasta with vegetables in a silky, buttery sauce. The pasta absorbs the light, lemony sauce as it sits, so serve right away with a sprinkling of red pepper flakes, fresh basil, and more Parmesan cheese.
This is my ode to spring — a simple springtime supper that takes full advantage of all that spring markets offer.
How To Make One-Pot Pasta Primavera
What You Need
cloves garlic, smashed
2 1/2 teaspoons
kosher salt, divided
unsalted butter, at room temperature and divided
finely grated lemon zest (from 1 lemon)
dry short pasta, such as penne rigate, fusilli, or orecchiette
medium shallot, minced
asparagus spears, trimmed and cut into 1-inch pieces on the diagonal
small zucchini, diced
julienned carrots (about 3 ounces)
diced orange or yellow bell pepper
1 1/4 cups
Broccolini, trimmed and cut into 1-inch pieces (about 3 ounces)
sugar snap peas, strings removed and halved on the diagonal (about 2 ounces)
fresh or frozen peas
cherry tomatoes, halved
grated Parmesan cheese, plus more for serving
thinly sliced basil
Pinch red pepper flakes
Knife and cutting board
Rasp grater, such as Microplane
Dutch oven or large pot
Make garlic-lemon butter. Mash the garlic and 1/2 teaspoon of the salt together to make a paste. Add 4 tablespoons of the butter and lemon zest and mash together until combined; set aside.
Sauté shallot in butter. Melt remaining 1 tablespoon butter in a large Dutch oven or pot over medium-high heat. Add shallots and sauté until softened and beginning to brown, 2 to 3 minutes.
Cook the pasta. Add the pasta, 4 cups hot water, and remaining 2 teaspoons salt. Cover and bring to a boil over high heat. Once boiling, lower heat back to medium-high, uncover, and cook until the pasta is al dente, about 8 minutes. Stir the pasta occasionally, loosening noodles that stick to the bottom or sides of the pot.
Stir in the vegetables and cook until tender. Add the asparagus, zucchini, carrot, broccolini, sugar snap peas, and peas. Stir and cook uncovered until the vegetables are crisp-tender and the cooking liquid has reduced into a starchy sauce, about 2 minutes.
Finish with the tomatoes, cheese, and garlic-lemon butter. Stir in the tomatoes, Parmesan cheese, and garlic-lemon butter. The water should be significantly reduced, leaving only a silky, buttery sauce. Serve in bowls garnished with red pepper flakes, basil, and more Parmesan cheese.
Storage: Refrigerate leftovers in an airtight container for up to 3 days.
Make ahead: Vegetables can be chopped and refrigerated in an airtight container up to 1 day in advance.