Pasta with vegetables can be mostly pasta or mostly vegetables, but it’s always a good idea. It’s healthy, it’s yummy, and it’s quick. Who doesn’t keep a box of noodles or spaghetti in the cupboard, ready to drop into a pot of boiling, salted water? Not you? Well, it’s never too late to learn.
Having the veggies on hand is easy, too, because any can be used in this improvised dish. If you have a garden, just pick several that look good and will taste good together. Pasta primavera, technically a spring dish, is often stretched to mean the freshest, tenderest crops of early summer, such as baby zucchini, pearl onions and green beans or peas. Sauces should be gentle — maybe just olive oil, a bit of garlic and fresh herbs. Later mixtures might include cauliflower, broccoli and cherry tomatoes. You can sauce them a little more heavily, with brown butter or some Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese and cream. But I forgo a thick red ragu, which tends to obscure individual vegetable flavors.
In fall and winter, the concept takes on a whole new character. The vegetables aren’t dainty at all. They’re big, earthy carrots, turnips, kohlrabies, storage onions, parsnips — even pumpkins and winter squash. Round them up from the root cellar, the unheated shed, the crisper drawer of your fridge — or the store nearest your subway stop on the way home from work.
Even if you are a fair-weather gardener, or not a gardener at all, you deserve to eat like one on a cold, blustery day. Add some leeks to your shopping list, too, and a robust green such as kale or Swiss chard. The vegetables can all be steamed or sauteed together, starting with those that take longest to cook, then adding greens toward the end. Each vegetable should soften but still retain its shape.
For the pasta, I choose a type that has enough substance to stand up to a Paul Bunyan vegetable such as a rutabaga. No strands of angel hair or pellets of orzo. Save the tiny tubes of ditalini for soup. If you can find a good whole-wheat spaghetti or maybe rigatoni, preferably made in Italy and extruded through traditional bronze dies, there’s a pretty good bet. It should not “taste like lead pencils,” as my son used to say. It should taste like wheat.
The other route to take is by way of Japan. Udon noodles, which are rather thick strands of wheat pasta, are a good match for winter roots. Soba noodles, made with buckwheat flour with some wheat added for ease of extrusion, are thinner but can still hold their own. The important thing, with both of them, is to taste them while boiling to prevent overcooking. Their charm depends on their not turning to mush.
For the sauce, my first choice is always one made with tahini, a delectable puree of sesame seeds. It comes raw or toasted, and both are fine, though I find that the toasting adds richness.
Here’s what I do: While the pasta is boiling, I put several big spoonfuls of the tahini in a quart Pyrex measuring pitcher and add to it a ladleful of the pasta water, stirring vigorously with a sturdy whisk. It should be somewhat thick but not like peanut butter. I add the juice of one large lemon and whisk some more. The lemon juice makes it even thicker. Then I pour in tamari (Japanese soy sauce), which adds a lot of flavor, darkens the sauce and thins it out. If it’s still too thick, I add more water or more tamari until it pours easily. Everyone I feed loves this sauce.
There are three ways to serve the final result. You can mix the pasta, vegetables and sauce in one big serving bowl. You can give everybody a plate of pasta with vegetables on top and pass the Pyrex pitcher. Or you can put out all three separately for those who like this dish with mostly noodles, mostly veggies — or mostly sauce.
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