The word “primavera” means “spring” in several languages, and to most people it suggests pasta primavera: pasta with spring vegetables. Although you might suppose this to be a traditional Italian recipe, like spaghetti Bolognese, pasta primavera arose rather suddenly in the 1970s, like Venus from the sea, with several chefs claiming to be its creator.
It’s a popular dish, and with good reason. Ever since Marco Polo returned from the Far East with noodles, Italian cooks have paired pasta in all shapes with the vegetables that grow well in their mild climate and fertile soil. (For a delicious sampling, check out Jack Bishop’s 1996 book “Pasta e Verdura.”)
Vegetable sauces can be light, nutritious and yummy. The only odd thing about pasta primavera is that the vegetables used in most recipes are rarely associated with spring. They tend to be summer fare, such as tomatoes, zucchini and cauliflower.
But think a minute. Can you name a spring vegetable? Asparagus? Good. Name another one. Um, sorrel? Fava beans? Maybe if you live in France.
The fact is, in March and April you are planting a lot of vegetables but you are probably feasting off the last of the storage crops. There’s a reason old-timers called this season the hungry gap. If you have a greenhouse to shield you from the danger of frost and soggy-wet soil, March and April might give you some fresh greens, crisp radishes and sweet overwintered onions. In May, you’ll see broccoli raab in local markets, along with dill, baby turnips, sugar snap peas, tender carrots, very young fennel and baby new potatoes.
Call it a semantic distinction, but most of these are just young versions of summer crops that we don’t get to enjoy until we’ve had summer weather for quite some time. A protective device, even a simple cold frame, will get you those wonderful, fresh vegetables earlier, and they often taste better now than in June or July. Spinach is sweeter and less coarse. Arugula has less bite. Lettuce, baby beet greens and Asian greens such as mizuna can be sown as cut-and-come-again crops and picked for a stretch before the weather turns hot and makes them bolt.
Another trick is to chit some potatoes indoors. That means exposing them to warmth and light in a protected space and sprinkling them with water daily so their eyes start to sprout. With frost protection, you could plant them and have fresh-tasting potatoes in May.
Whenever your moment of abundant vegetables finally appears, tossing them with spaghetti, fusilli or strozzapreti is certainly a fine way to celebrate it. But pasta doesn’t have to be the medium. How about a minestrone primavera? A risotto primavera? Thai curry primavera?
My favorite thing to do with the first young vegetables is to simmer them until just tender, then surround cut-up chicken with them. This could be a light version in which the chicken is skinned, poached gently in broth and served with a yogurt and horseradish sauce on the side. Just the thing if you’re setting out to lose some winter flab.
Or, you could leave the skin on the chicken parts, crisp them in a pan and serve them, vegetables and all, with a sauceboat of homemade hollandaise. Now that’s a celebration.
Damrosch is the author of “The Four Season Farm Gardener’s Cookbook.”
It’s still too cold to plant dahlias, but tubers can be started in pots and encouraged into growth before planting in May. Leave pots in a sheltered spot outdoors away from wind and sun, and bring them inside on cold nights or if hail is forecast. Take the time to dig and enrich the beds where the dahlias will be grown and to assemble the stakes that larger varieties will need.
— Adrian Higgins