Plenty of palate-pleasing pasta

Variations: With primavera, you can go from simple to elaborate as you build on one master recipe.

May 16, 2001|By Ronnie Fein | Ronnie Fein,STAMFORD ADVOCATE

Now that it's warmer and the days are longer, it's time to let spring take over.

In the culinary world, what better way than with a big bowl of pasta primavera?

Pasta primavera means springtime pasta, a simple dish of pasta with vegetables and olive oil. It doesn't matter what vegetables you choose, just be sure you pick the youngest, freshest ones you can find.

On the day we shopped, the grape tomatoes and asparagus looked especially fine, but pasta primavera is so versatile we could have included any number of others: snow peas, string beans, bell peppers, zucchini ...

Fact is, pasta primavera is so adaptable, you can make it as simple or as elaborate as you wish, simply by building on one master recipe. Here's how:

First, the pasta. Dried or fresh - it's your decision - but you should know that fresh pasta takes a very short time to cook and can turn to mush quickly. The shape is more important: Strands such as spaghetti and linguine or oddities such as farfalle and rotelle work best with vegetables.

To prevent the pasta from coming out gummy, cook it in lots of water. One pound of pasta needs at least six quarts of boiling, salted water. The salt lessens the need for much, if any, salt in the recipe. Some people add olive oil to pasta cooking water, but it is unnecessary. If you sauce the pasta immediately, the strands or other shapes won't stick together.

Almost everyone knows that pasta should be cooked al dente, which means tender, but still slightly firm at the center.

After seven or eight minutes of cooking, take a piece out of the pot and bite into it. If it isn't ready, try again every half minute or so.

Like all hot foods, pasta continues to cook even when it is taken off the heat source. You must sauce and serve it almost immediately, so prepare the sauce first - in this case, the vegetables.

Young vegetables don't need much cooking; we sauteed the onion, asparagus and tomatoes for a short time before adding the pasta.

Although we could have added fresh basil to heighten flavor, we preferred a more pristine dish. You may include it or not; it won't make any difference to the mechanics of the recipe.

A sprinkling with olive oil and the dish was done, except for salt and pepper. Here, too, it's up to you.

If you like pasta a bit creamier, add some of the cooking water and some freshly grated Parmesan cheese. The water adds moisture and helps the cheese melt and blend in.

Spring and summer grilling can help you amplify a dish of pasta primavera.

It's simple: Grill the ingredient - we chose shrimp - and add it at the end. Boneless chicken breasts, scallops, clams, firm fish are other options; all cook quickly on the barbecue or oven broiler and add bulk, but not heaviness, to the dish.

You can also include some grilled vegetables. Our most elaborate recipe is pasta primavera with mozzarella cheese, roasted pepper and grilled baby eggplant. The cheese melts very slightly into the hot pasta, enriching the dish. The roasted red pepper and grilled baby eggplant impart a smoky flavor that complements the spring vegetables.

It might sound complicated, but if you look carefully and strip it down to its component parts, it's the same dish as the master recipe, only it has a few more ingredients added at the end.

Pasta Primavera

Makes 4 servings

1 small purple onion

1 pound asparagus

1 pint grape or cherry tomatoes

2 tablespoons salt

1 pound pasta

4 to 5 tablespoons olive oil, divided use

2 tablespoons chopped fresh basil, optional

salt and pepper

Peel the onion and chop it into small pieces.

Wash the asparagus, peel the stalks, if desired, and cut them into bite-sized pieces. Wash the tomatoes. Bring a large pot of water to a boil.

Add the salt. Add the pasta and cook it until it is al dente.

While the pasta is cooking, heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil in a skillet.

Add the onion and cook over moderate heat 2 minutes, until the onion has softened slightly.

Add the asparagus pieces and continue to cook, stirring occasionally, 2 to 3 minutes. Add the tomatoes and basil, if using, and cook another minute.

Remove the pan from the heat.

Drain the pasta. Put the pasta into the skillet and return the pan to the stove top over moderate heat.

Add 2 tablespoons olive oil and sprinkle in some salt and pepper. Toss the ingredients and cook for about a minute, until they are hot.

Add another tablespoon of olive oil if you like the pasta a bit more moist. Taste the pasta and add salt and pepper as desired.

Pasta Primavera With Cheese

Makes 4 servings

1 recipe Pasta Primavera

1/2 cup pasta cooking water

1 cup grated Parmesan cheese

Cook the pasta exactly as in the master recipe, but add the pasta cooking water and Parmesan cheese when you add the 2 tablespoons of olive oil to the cooked pasta.

Taste the pasta and add salt and pepper as desired.

Pasta Primavera With Grilled Shrimp

Makes 4 servings

1 pound shrimp (about 20), shelled and deveined

2 tablespoons olive oil

salt and pepper

1 recipe Pasta Primavera or Pasta Primavera With Cheese

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