Pasta primavera is one of the simplest, most versatile ways to celebrate the arrival of spring produce. You can put any combination of vegetables in it you want. Last year, I made a version based on the recipe from The New Basics Cookbook with bell pepper, zucchini, yellow squash, carrot, onion and celery.
I didn’t set out to make primavera with this dish, it just sort of happened. I had asparagus on hand and wanted to try making pesto with it. But I wanted other vegetables for the pasta too. Looking for good suggestions, I put it to the Washington Post Food section staff during a recent Free Range chat. Editor Joe Yonan suggested reserving some of the asparagus and broiling the spears for some “asparagus-squared action.” He also suggested peas and scallions as additional vegetables. Whole Foods didn’t yet have fresh English peas, but they did have sugar snap peas. Perfect!
I decided some roasted red pepper would be good in there too. While you can buy little jars of roasted red pepper, it’s so easy to make that it’s hardly worth the cost of store-bought. Just cut a red pepper flat, broil it, seal it in foil to self-steam a bit, then peel off the skin. Quick and easy.
Like primavera, pesto can also be made in many different ways. Traditionally, it has basil and pine nuts, but with pine nuts having become increasingly expensive, lately I like making it with walnuts. Since the flavor focus is on the other ingredients, this isn’t noticeably different—perhaps a little earthier, which is nice actually. Pesto isn’t a “cooked” food, but I did blanch the asparagus just briefly for this and plunged it into an ice water bath. This softened it while keeping its bright green color.
Pasta Primavera with Asparagus Pesto
1 lb. asparagus, tough ends removed
Olive oil spray
Salt and fresh-ground black pepper
1 red bell pepper
1/3 cup basil leaves, roughly chopped, plus a few other leaves cut into ribbons for garnish
1/4 cup walnuts
5 garlic cloves, minced (set aside half of one clove for the pesto, the rest goes in the pasta sauce)
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1/4 tsp. salt
1/3 cup grated parmigiano-reggiano, plus additional at the table, if desired
1 lb. dried pasta (I used orecchiette)
1 tbsp. unsalted butter
1 medium sweet onion, diced
Pinch of red pepper flakes
1/2 lb. sugar snap peas, cut in thirds (stem ends removed)
1/2 cup dry white wine (I used Italian Gavi Gavi made from Cortese grapes)
1 cup low-sodium vegetable broth
1. Preheat oven broiler with rack about 4-5 inches from heating element. Divide the asparagus (half will be broiled in this step, the other half will be used below in the pesto). Line a large baking sheet with aluminum foil. Arrange the asparagus on one half of the baking sheet. Spray with extra-virgin olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Cut the stem out out of a red bell pepper, then cut pepper in half. Remove any remaining ribs and seeds. Place on baking sheet skin-side up and push down to flatten. Put baking sheet in oven to broil asparagus and pepper for 4 minutes. Remove from oven, toss asparagus, rotate baking sheet and broil another 4 minutes. Remove from oven and wrap bell pepper in foil. Set foil-wrapped peppers and asparagus aside to cool. Remove skin from bell pepper (if should peel off pretty easily). Chop both vegetables roughly into pieces about 1 inch in size.
2. Heat a 4 qt. saucepan over medium-high heat fitted with a steamer insert and an appropriate amount of water (water level should be just below steamer). Bring to boil. Cut remaining uncooked asparagus into 2-inch pieces and add to pot. Cover and steam for 3 to 4 minutes. Prepare a bowl of ice water while asparagus steams. Remove asparagus and plunge in ice water to cool. Drain asparagus.
3. To make the pesto, add basil and walnuts to food processor. Pulse a few times to chop ingredients. Add 1/2 clove minced garlic, the steamed asparagus, 1/4 cup olive oil and 1/4 tsp. salt. Pulse a few times until asparagus is ground up but still chunky. Transfer mixture to a bowl, add parmigiano-reggiano and stir to combine.
4. Cook pasta according to package directions in salted water. Drain, and set aside.
5. Heat a large skillet over medium heat. Add butter; when melted, add onion and sauté until softened, about 5-6 minutes. Season with salt and a pinch of red pepper flakes. Add remaining minced garlic and cook 2 minutes. Add sugar snap peas and cook another 2 minutes. Add wine and vegetable broth, stir to combine and simmer for 10 minutes. Add the cut up broiled asparagus and roasted red pepper, stir to combine and heat through.
6. Combine vegetable sauce with cooked pasta. Serve in bowls topped with a dollop of pesto and a sprinkle of fresh basil. Serve additional parmigiano-reggiano cheese at the table.