One of the greatest challenges, and greatest rewards, comes from cooking simple food perfectly. It’s all too easy to look at a something like a bowl of pasta and say to yourself “well, that’s no big deal – I could whip that up in a second.” When we see complicated cuisine, or the typically ‘elevated’ food styles that are so common in high end restaurants, we pick apart the complexities and appreciate them for the artistry and skill involved in them. Rightly so – chefs work long and hard to master a wide range of cooking techniques, many of which require quite a bit of practice and care. But simple foods can be both revealing and incredibly important, precisely because they have nothing to hide behind.
You could throw this together any time, any day of the year. Frozen peas, canned fava beans, asparagus imported from wherever it’s spring, tossed with some pasta. Heck, take that, drown it in a cream sauce (aka the Crappy Pasta Restaurant cure-all) and you’ve got something you can charge 12.99 for. Now before I come across as an elitist; I’m all in favour of cheap food and I have no problem at all with non-traditional meals* (see my note below about where this dish actually comes from) but when it comes to pasta and Italian food, I seriously don’t get why we do this to ourselves. Using mediocre ingredients and tons of added fat is not just lazy – it’s embracing mediocrity. This is not a difficult dish to make, and when you put some thought and care into it, it’s exquisite. I’m not exaggerating here – this is one of the most delicious and exceptional pastas dishes that you can make. But in order for it to be that good, you have to respect two very closely related things: the season, and the ingredients.
Pasta primavera is supposed to be an incredibly seasonal celebration of spring produce – the entire thing revolves around the taste of the freshest, most tender spring greens. The greens themselves can vary a little, but a combination of peas, fava beans, and asparagus is pretty classic (I say classic, but this is actually a fairly young dish – more on that later). Now if you haven’t tasted freshly-shelled peas before then you need to remedy that immediately. If you have tasted them, you know what I mean when I say there’s a big difference between fresh and frozen. There’s nothing inherently wrong with frozen peas. I use them all the time in fact. Likewise, canned fava beans can be great. But you want this to taste like the best, the freshest, the most perfect and ephemeral of foods. These foods don’t last long. If you are lucky enough to have a bounty of spring peas (etc.), eat as many as you can and freeze the rest to enjoy later – but eat this now.
Now, to turn the page back a little and discuss that old nugget about ‘simple’ food. Is this dish simple? I’d say so, but with a sizable caveat. The flavours are layered and complex but this is not a difficult dish to make by a long shot. But it’s not quick either – this is one of those dishes where the term “labour of love” springs to mind. I served this to my family, and let me tell you there’s love in every last bite. My wife shelled the peas with our four-year-old, and we picked the best looking fava beans to photograph together. The fava beans – well, they’re probably nature’s most ridiculously wasteful packaging. They’re like the blister packaging of the food world. You’ve got to peel them out of their monstrous pod, then blanch the pale green beans inside, then peel the fava bean out of its pale and waxy jacket. You don’t exactly get a lot of beans in the end, and the amount of time you spend doing it will make you consider hiring a prep-cook. The asparagus is quick to prepare, but even it’s extraordinary when you think about it – a plant that we have to let grow for an entire year before it can pop up again to be picked at exactly the right moment (it can become overgrown if picked even a day late). This food takes time. It takes thought. It does not take great skill, but it does demand care. Brought together with a simple parsley soffritto, olive oil, cheese, and some pepper, this isn’t any old pasta dish, and it definitely isnt a token vegetarian pasta meant to flesh out a menu. It’s a celebration of spring, family, and life.
* As a side note, this dish is part of April’s theme about spring dishes from around the world, and this is something of an odd one. It’s an Italian-Canadian-American hybrid. The original pasta primavera was invented in… Nova Scotia. Now, Canada is my home and native land, and I love it, but we are a bit quick to try and claim ANYTHING with a Canadian connection (like the telephone), so let me clarify a little further. The dish was apparently first made by chef Sirio Maccione’s wife while they were visiting the Nova Scotia summer home of an Italian count. From there, Maccione took it back to famed restaurant Le Cirque (a French restaurant he co-owned), and the dish became famous in Manhattan, and eventually the world. So there you go. Italian Canadian American.
This is one of those meals where you want to make sure you really know what you’re doing before you get started. No one aspect is particularly challenging, but you need to make sure you leave time to prepare the ingredients (especially the fava beans), and to bring everything together at the right time.
You may have noticed that this recipe is devoid of any cream. You could certainly add a little heavy cream to finish the sauce if you wanted, but I personally find it unnecessary. The lightness of the vegetables works really well with olive oil and, while cream is certainly tasty and unctuous, I feel that it disguises the quality of the starting ingredients (plus it adds a lot of fat and calories). That being said, the cheese is a must – it adds the richness, salt, and savoury depth.
A few notes about the spring vegetables:
Asparagus – I’ve indicated that you should only use the tips (the last 5 cm/2 inches or so) of the asparagus spears as they’re the most tender – sort of a special treat. You can keep the stalks for another dish. If you’ve got very tender or slim asparagus, you could use the whole stalk instead, but you’ll want to make sure to only use about 1/3 of a bunch.
Peas – You’ll need about 500-550g (a little over 1 lb) of fresh, un-shelled English peas in order to obtain 150 g (1.5 cup) of shelled peas. If you can’t find fresh peas in the shell, you could consider frozen peas, but only if they’re of incredible quality. Don’t use the sad, wrinkly ones that have been sitting in your freezer waiting to nurse bruised shins.
Fava Beans – You’ll need about 700 g (about 1.5 lbs) of fresh, unshelled Fava beans in order to obtain 100 g (1 cup) of shelled beans (yes, really). Fava beans are kind of funny really – they have to be shelled twice after all. But the outer portions are, oddly enough, actually edible. Food 52 has a great recipe and write up detailing a technique to grill whole fava beans here – if you decide to try it with your leftover pods, let me know!
No ingredient pages have been written yet for any of the ingredients in this recipe. Like to see one? Let me know in the comments below or by email.
No pantry pages have been written yet for any of the ingredients in this recipe. Like to see one? Let me know in the comments below or by email.
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