There were so many vegetables in the kitchen it looked like a market. The last tomatoes and peppers in a bowl, big heads of Savoy cabbage and cauliflower. Lettuce and radicchio. Watercress from the pond. Baby white turnips, sweet fall carrots, butternut squash and beets. Even the last, pathetic zucchini. (If it’s just one, is it a zucchino?) In any case, it’s now compost.
What do you do with too many vegetables? You make pasta primavera.
Now there’s a dish that’s always puzzled me. Why is it always so untrue to its name? Most classic vegetable-based recipes are strictly seasonal. Ratatouille, for instance, starts with a walk through the summer garden and a gathering-up of tomatoes, eggplant, onions and summer squash. The French “MBC” salad, composed of mache, beets and chicory, is strictly a winter treat. But pasta primavera, whose name means “spring pasta,” should probably be called “pasta whatever.” It’s the Princess Summerfall Winterspring of food (for you old-timers who remember the “Howdy Doody” show). Never have I seen it made with just spring vegetables. It usually has summer squash, broccoli or cauliflower and invariably tomatoes.
Maybe the dish isn’t a classic at all, I wondered. One theory holds that it’s an American invention, like chop suey. After all, Americans don’t know what’s seasonal and what isn’t, because we eat everything all the time. Consider also that spring is not a season for vegetable bounty. There are daffodils, forsythia and bright new grass, but what’s in the garden? Asparagus, some early lettuce and other salad greens, maybe some scallions and eventually the first peas.
I poked further into the writings of some authors I revere as authorities. Marcella Hazan in the 1980 “More Classic Italian Cooking” notes a recent “vogue” for saucing pasta and risotto with spring vegetables, “something Italian cooks have been doing in one form or another for a long time.” But her recipe combines peas, tomatoes and zucchini. Edward Giobbi, in the 1991 “Pleasures of the Good Earth” includes basil, tomatoes and tuna. Yummy. But springlike? No.
I finally found a true spring version in Giuliano Bugialli’s “Bugialli on Pasta,” published in 1989. His Pasta Alle Erbe, which he translates as “Spaghetti With Spring Vegetables,” is taken from a Renaissance Florentine cookbook and it features asparagus, scallions, peas, Swiss chard, and artichokes. In Florence, Swiss chard could easily winter over and come up in spring. Artichokes would do the same, their tasty buds edible until their purple flowers open in June. He adds lemon juice, pancetta, chicken broth and olive oil. No cheese. It sounds utterly delicious, as was the hopelessly inauthentic “pasta fall-avera” I made for supper, which was, also, of a certain time and a certain place.
Damrosch is a freelance writer and the author of “ The Garden Primer .”