It translates to “spring pasta” from Italian, so forgive me for assuming pasta primavera is a classic springtime Italian dish. But while primavera sounds classy, it turns out pasta primavera was invented in Nova Scotia during the summer of 1975. The bottom line is we can prepare cheesy noodles with vegetables any time of year, with summer and fall probably being the best seasons to do so, because they offer more fresh produce than spring. As pasta primavera is an American dish, we can use American cheeses if we want. Ultimately, we are talking about mac ‘n cheese with extra vegetables, and there isn’t anything wrong with that. Mac ‘n cheese primavera is an effective and delicious way to eat vegetables. And making the entire dish from scratch takes barely any longer than preparing the boxed, veg-less version.
A proper mac ‘n cheese primavera has a smooth, non-lumpy cheese sauce and al dente vegetables. I don’t sprinkle it with breadcrumbs and bake it because that makes it difficult to control the cooking, and potential overcooking, of the vegetables.
The most common recipes for pasta primavera include tomato, bell pepper and other veggies from deeper into the summer, as well as broccoli and peas, which come earlier. Whichever you use, the essential task of this recipe is to cook the vegetables perfectly. The most reliable way of doing so is to steam the veggies separately, shock them in cold water to stop the cooking and keep them crisp, and add them to the almost finished product.
Today’s recipe for an early summer mac ‘n cheese primavera features rounds of green and yellow zucchini and fresh herbs like parsley and/or basil. Because zucchini is the only vegetable I’m cooking, I don’t have to worry about overcooking some and undercooking others, so I’ll skip the steaming and briefly saute the zukes before adding the noodles, fresh from the boiling water and still wet. The water drips off the noodles and into the pan and steams the zucchini in place, while we build the sauce on top with handfuls of shredded cheese.
You can use this recipe to track the harvest by incorporating whatever produce is available. Vegetables like peas and broccoli, which need at most a mere hint of cooking, can be incorporated the same way as the zucchini. Steam heartier veggies like cauliflower or carrot before tossing them into the silky and cheesy finished product.
Mac ‘n Cheese Primavera alla Zucchine
This dish combines the best elements of two classic pasta dishes: pasta primavera and mac ‘n cheese. It’s extremely flexible, in the type of cheeses you add as well as which vegetables to include. Serves 6
1 pound pasta — preferably short, stubby and hollow, such as penne, which is basically like un-bent elbows and holds sauce similarly
1 pound zucchini, cut into rounds about a half-inch thick
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons butter
3 cloves garlic, chopped
1 tablespoon mustard powder
1 teaspoon nutmeg
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1 teaspoon black pepper
¼ lemon, juice and zest
1 cup milk
¾ pound of cheese, grated: I like a mix of sharp cheddar, orange cheddar and fontina
Salt for the pasta water and for seasoning
Fresh parsley and/or basil
Bring four quarts of salted (about a tablespoon) water to a boil and cook the pasta. While the pasta is boiling, add the zucchini, butter, oil and garlic to a deep pan or heavy bottom pot and saute for about five minutes on low/medium heat. When the noodles are done, quickly drain and add them to the zucchini, but don’t stir it together.
Sprinkle the mustard powder, nutmeg, garlic powder, black pepper, lemon juice and zest on top of the noodles, but still don’t stir it.
Add the milk, and about a quarter of your grated cheese, and give it a stir. Add another quarter of the cheese and stir again. Keep adding the cheese and stirring it in until it’s all in, and keep stirring until it turns into a glorious cheese sauce. If it’s too dry or starts to burn, turn down the heat and add more milk or some pasta water to loosen it. Add salt to taste. It will need some, even if the cheese is salty. Top with fresh herbs and serve.