One of the many benefits of being a food nerd isn’t just about learning all sorts of interesting facts about the things we eat, but learning about our shared cultural history of food. Some people would argue that America has made few contributions to the culinary world, and in a way it’s true. We are, after all, the country that not only manufactured, but popularized many food trends, from Pop Tarts™ to Cheetos™; we’ve had quite an impact not only on how we eat in our own country, but on how people eat the world over.
It’s pretty amazing to think that many of our fondest food trends began back in the early twentieth century with each decade giving us something memorable to crave. In the 1920s, snack foods, such as potato chips, were popularized. Then in the 1950s, casseroles hit the scene; they were easy and prepared with processed ingredients–canned and frozen items were all the rage during that time. And while the 1970s are best remembered for earth tone kitchen appliances and shag carpeting, this was the decade that was responsible for fondué, open-faced sandwiches, Peach Snapps and Pasta Primavera.
It’s hard to imagine that not only was Pasta Primavera an invention of the 1970s, but that it was American. Who knew, right? If you’re like me, you probably imagined that it was an Italian delicacy. However, like any food invention, there’s a little history behind its inception.
No one disputes that the recipe for Pasta Primavera originated at the famous New York eatery, Le Cirque, but who was responsible for its invention is highly disputed. History has it that it was a waiter who taught it to a chef and that the dish gained popularity when Le Cirque’s owner tried it; history also has it that it was the wife of the owner who came up with the dish.
It was a popular item, but it wasn’t on the menu. It was, however, part of the secret menu. The funny part of the story is that once famed New York restaurant critic, Craig Claiborne wrote about the dish and printed a recipe, it became a huge success–with one caveat: the chef refused to allow it to be prepared in his kitchen. Naturally, the waiters who didn’t want to disappoint their customers, set up a burner and a pot in a hallway adjacent to the dining room and secretly cooked it to order.
Spring is the perfect time to enjoy this dish. My recipe has a lightened up cream sauce, but if you prefer, you can skip the sauce altogether and drizzle with olive oil instead. Whole wheat pasta noodles up the fiber and cooking pasta al denté lowers the glycemic index. The vegetables provide bulk, so you really can get by with a reasonable portion of pasta.
1 pound pasta; linguini, nested vermicelli or fettuccine
2 cups 1% milk
2 cups whole milk ricotta cheese
2 tablespoons of cornstarch
2 garlic toes, peeled and finely minced
1/4 cup fresh basil, finely shredded
2 teaspoons olive oil
pinch of nutmeg
salt and fresh cracked pepper
grated parmesan cheese
Assorted steamed vegetables such as: carrots, red and yellow pepper, broccoli, asparagus spears, mushroom, zucchini rounds, peas, snap peas, corn, tomatoes–pick your favorites
1. Cook pasta according to package directions. Drain and set aside.
2. In a non-stick sauce pan, heat the olive oil. When hot, but not smoking, add the garlic and fry just until fragrant and soft.
3. Add one cup of milk and simmer until just boiling; allow to reduce by one-third.
4. Add all but two tablespoons of the remaining milk and bring back to a boil.
5. Whisk in the ricotta cheese.
6. In a small bowl, mix together the two tablespoons of cornstarch with the two tablespoons of milk; slowly add to the ricotta mixture, stirring constantly. Bring to a boil until the sauce thickens and then reduce the heat.
7. Add the nutmeg, a pinch of salt and several grinds of black pepper.
8. Gently stir the pasta into the sauce; thin with a bit of milk, if needed.
9. Just before serving, fold in steamed vegetables and heat until vegetables are warm through.
10. Stir in shredded basil; correct seasonings.
11. To serve, mound up in warm pasta bowls, top with parmesan cheese and a few sprigs of basil.