Primavera in Italian means “in the style of spring.” Maine’s spring yields fiddlehead ferns, asparagus, early spinach and chives. All of which, when added to pasta, make a charming May meal inspired by a classic pasta primavera.
Since roughly the mid-1960s, when pasta primavera first graced restaurant menus and then gradually appeared in home cooking, the dish most often featured peas, broccoli, tomatoes, and zucchini in a light cream sauce with lots of parmesan cheese.
When I look at that list of vegetables, I think peas and July, broccoli and later July, tomatoes and zucchini in August, and I’ll find none of them now, in springtime in my garden. I do find asparagus sending up lots of shoots now, as it will for the rest of the month. A little overwintered spinach unfolds dark green, savoyed leaves, and sharply onion-flavored chives are tall and not yet blooming.
If you gather your asparagus from a garden, take a handful, whatever you can wrap your fingers around. Otherwise, pick up a bunch at the store. You can find fiddlehead ferns in some stores this time of year, or at farm stands.
I am blessed with a neighbor who likes gathering still tightly curled fiddleheads and, with a few buckets of them in the back of his truck, delivers generous amounts to true fiddlehead aficionados — already washed free from the brown papery skins they have as they emerge from the ground! What a treat these wholesome foraged vegetables are, packed with whopping amounts of Vitamin A.
These are true Maine primavera vegetables.
Do make sure you cook the fiddleheads for at least 10 to 15 minutes; definitely don’t eat them raw. Various sources describe various kinds of toxicity in them that can sicken us, from microbes to the fern’s chemical makeup. Cooking them takes care of the problem, so don’t omit doing it.
Now all we need is a light sauce, Parmesan cheese and pasta of our choice. The sauce I made from cream and broth — I used roasted garlic broth, but you can use chicken, vegetable, whatever you like. Cooked together with a wee splash of white wine, it thickens enough to coat the steamed fiddleheads and blanched asparagus, which can be tossed with pasta.
I shredded the spinach and chopped the chives to toss in at the last minute. Add parmesan to the sauce or sprinkle it liberally over the top of each serving.
I used penne, but you might prefer long pasta. Cook enough to serve four. If you want, you can mix less pasta with the vegetables for a more intense vegetable experience.
To tell you the truth, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this dish. Plus, when I look out my kitchen window and see green grass, and tiny bright green leaves on the birch and apple trees, then look at the green in the pasta bowl, too, well, how can I doubt that it is spring?
Maine Primavera Pasta
1 quart water
2 cups fiddlehead ferns, washed and stem ends removed
2 tablespoons of butter
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium onion, sliced
2 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
½ cup cream
¼ cup broth
1 bunch asparagus, cut into inch-long pieces and blanched until bright green
2 tablespoons white wine or dry sherry
2 cups of spinach, shredded
Small bunch of chives, chopped
Fresh parmesan (for grating on each serving)
Bring the quart of water to a boil and add the fiddleheads, and cook briskly for 10-15 minutes. Drain them and set aside.
Heat the butter and oil in a large sauté pan, and cook the onion until it is soft, adding garlic for a couple of minutes at the end, cooking it until you can smell it.
Add the cream, broth, and wine to the pan with the onions and simmer together until it thickens slightly.
Add the fiddleheads and the asparagus to the cream sauce and lower the heat. Allow to simmer while the pasta is cooking, adding a little more broth if it begins to dry out.
Toss the drained pasta and the vegetables and sauce together, adding the spinach and chives. Serve with a hefty grating of parmesan on top.