Pasta Primavera is a spring vegetable pasta famous at New York’s chic French restaurant Le Cirque. I visited Le Cirque many years ago when I was younger and the memory of its swooning pasta will always stick with me. Here is the recipe for Le Cirque in action! I’m sure you will like it.
Today’s recipe is a large, healthy vegetable mix disguised as creamy pasta. So you can serve your clan as a decadent creamy pasta for dinner, knowing that it’s also packed with nutritious vegetables.After all, life is all about balance!
Primavera means “spring” in Italian, and this meatless dish is all about celebrating the best green treats the season has to offer. In that regard, don’t get attached to the vegetables I used! Use the best seasonal spring produce you can find, or see my recommendations for alternatives.
The Pasta Primavera story
This pasta dish is said to have been invented in the 1970s by Sirio Maccioni, restaurateur of New York’s famous French restaurant Le Cirque (now closed). I will always have fond memories of Le Cirque. When I traveled to New York as a rich college student, it was the first and only high end fine dining restaurant where I could dine in luxury. All of our food expenses for this trip were spent on dinner at Le Cirque. So were the prices (hot dogs and pizza slices for the rest of the trip!). Worth every penny.
Of all the wonderful dishes I ate that night, the Pasta Primavera still sticks in my mind. Originally invented as a dish to celebrate the produce of spring, pasta primavera has many different versions today. While researching the recipe for Pasta Primavera, Chef JB and I discovered that the origins of this dish can be traced back to Le Cirque and were able to find the actual recipe for Le Cirque. So it seems easy to share the original recipe in all its perfect glory!
What you need for Pasta Primavera
1. THE VEGETABLES
The vegetables used in this recipe are the same as those in Restaurant Le Cirque. As already mentioned, these are mostly spring vegetables. But feel free to switch and change according to your taste and the season in your area.
For each vegetable, I’m including suggestions for substitutions for similar vegetables. However, you can always just use more of another vegetable already in the recipe – or not. Make this dish your own!
- Broccolini – With longer, thinner stalks than regular broccoli, the natural shape of broccolini is perfect for tossing through long strand pasta. Substitute: Regular broccoli cut with more stem than you ordinarily would include, stems cut into long thin wedges or thick batons. ie try to mimic the shape of broccolini as best you can.
- Cherry tomatoes – Or cut regular tomatoes into chunks.
- Mushrooms – Any kind sliceable! If you only have large ones (like portobello) then just slice and chop into pieces so they are a similar size to slicing mushrooms around 3.5cm / 1.5″.
- Snow peas – Substitute with green beans, trimmed and cut in half lengthwise.
- Zucchini – Carrot probably gives the most similar texture in the end result but will take a minute or so longer to cook.
- Asparagus – More broccolini or zucchini are probably the best substitutes for this.
- Peas – Just frozen is totally fine in my books. Frozen peas really are better than old fresh peas. If you have home-grown-garden-fresh-organic-peas you’ve shelled yourself, I want to be you.
- Basil – A handful of fresh basil really adds that taste of warm weather brightness to this dish. But if you don’t have it, just leave it out because this recipe is absolutely still worth making. Substitute: I’d probably add a squeeze of fresh lemon juice instead, for a touch of freshness.
2. SAUCE AND PASTA
Today’s recipe is an original from Le Cirque restaurant in New York City. So it’s unabashedly indulgent as it’s loaded with butter and cream and has a restaurant-quality finish. I added a note to the recipe about how best to lighten it up for the calorie counters out there!
- Pine nuts – This is the signature ingredient that’s a hallmark of Le Cirque’s version. It adds a distinctive flavour and texture that really makes this recipe unique. I urge you not to skip it!!
- Parmigiano reggiano – This is true parmesan cheese, with a firm and dry texture perfect for finely grating over dishes and stirring in so it melts into sauces like this. It made according to strictly-regulated Italian methods and is aged a minimum of 24 months, giving it a more complex flavour than regular industrially-produced parmesan cheese. Substitute with non-reggiano parmesan or grana padano. But you MUST finely grate it yourself! If you buy pre-grated, the grains are too large and usually coated with anti-caking agent so it won’t melt smoothly into the sauce.
- Cream – For the sauce. Thickened / heavy cream is best though regular cream also works. As for low fat? Well, it’s still good but obviously changes the end result. The mouthfeel is less full and rich, and the sauce won’t be as thick so it won’t cling to the pasta as well.
- Butter – Melted and stirred into the sauce.
- Garlic – To add tasty flavour to the sautéed vegetables.
- Olive oil – For cooking the vegetables.
- Linguine or fettucine. Other long strand pastas also work fine but I do think that flat pastas like linguine work best because the bigger surface area means more sauce cling!
How to make Pasta Primavera
The secret to a good pasta primavera is sautéing the vegetables in the correct order. No one wants mushy, limp, boring vegetables in their Pasta Primavera. You want crisp, green, vibrant vegetables – spring is all about new and fresh. Remember!
1. CUTTING THE VEG
I won’t cover cutting all the vegetables. Just the ones sliced in non-typical ways (but it’s not hard, I promise!)
- Asparagus – Grab a few and snap the base off with your hands. Asparagus will naturally break at the point of the stringy woody base starts that we don’t want. Handy tip! Cut off the top 3cm / 1.2″ tips and set aside. Then slice the stems on the diagonal into 2.5 cm / 1″ lengths.
- Broccolini – Cut off the bushy florets with enough of the stem so you don’t end up with a mess of floret falling off everywhere. Then split the floret in half lengthwise (or quarter if you have abnormally fat ones).Slice the stems on the diagonal into 2.5 cm / 1″ lengths.
- Snow peas – Pinch off the stem end with your fingers then pull downwards to remove the tough “string” running along the “seam” side of the snow pea.Slice and slice – Stack 2 or 3 snow peas then slice on the diagonal around 1 cm / 0.4″ wide.
- Sauce – Melt the butter in a saucepan, and add cream and parmesan. Bring it to a simmer and stir just to melt the cheese, then turn off the stove and set aside. The sauce will seem thin but it will thicken later when we toss through the pasta with a splash of pasta cooking water (see step 7)
- Cook pasta – Start the pasta at this point. This way, the pasta and vegetables should be done around the same time to bring the dish together.
- Mushrooms – In other pan, sauté the mushrooms in half the oil until light golden, remove from the pan and set aside. (Don’t try to cook the mushrooms with the other vegetables, they will just stew and go watery!)
- Cook green veg – In the same pan, heat the remaining oil and cook the broccolini, snow peas and asparagus together for 2 minutes. Then add the zucchini, tomato, peas and garlic and cook for 3 minutes. By this time, all the vegetables should be almost cooked with a slight bite to them still. By this time we finish tossing with the sauce they will be crisp-but-tender, the perfect doneness where the vegetable are cooked but retain some texture. It’s the point at which vegetables are at their most vibrant and sweetest when cooked!
- Reserve pasta water – Just before draining the pasta, scoop out a mugful of the cooking water. This is our secret weapon for thickening the sauce, read Step 1 above for an explanation.
- Sauce and vegetables – Return the drained pasta back to the empty pasta cooking pot. Then add the vegetables plus creamy sauce.
- Pasta cooking water – Add 1/3 cup of the reserved pasta cooking water. What happens now is that the starch in the pasta cooking water thickens the sauce so it coats the pasta strands. It also emulsifies the sauce (ie. helps fats and water mix), like how when you shake oil and vinegar to make a salad dressing and it magically becomes uniform and viscous!
- Toss over heat – Turn the stove up to medium. Toss the pasta for 1 to 2 minutes until the cream sauce has thickened and is clinging to the pasta strands rather than being watery and pooled at the bottom of the pot. Basil & pine nuts – Right at the end, quickly toss through the basil just to disperse, then serve in bowls sprinkled with the pine nuts.
- Serve the pasta up immediately! Creamy pastas stay at peak eating for only a short time. The longer you leave it sitting around, the less creamy and silky the sauce will be. The sauce will tend to congeal as it cools, and also gets absorbed by the pasta, making it the dish gluggy. If this happens, just add a splash of pasta cooking water and toss again on the stove to loosen it up again!
I actually filmed this recipe this time last year (Aussie Spring 2021), but I couldn’t post it because I paused new recipes while working on the cookbook. So my team and I
I made it again just before sharing the recipe today to see if it was as good as I remembered. I forgot how amazing this dish is! Try it anytime, anywhere. It is said to be a Chinese New Year dish, but you can make it with seasonal vegetables all year round!