The Best of Both Pastas

The Best of Both Pastas
A melding of pasta primavera and mac 'n' cheese, this recipe is essentially cheesy pasta with an abundance of vegetables. (Ari LeVaux)

The name translates to "spring pasta" from Italian, so forgive me for assuming that pasta primavera was a classic springtime Italian dish. But while primavera sounds classy, it turns out the dish was invented in Nova Scotia during the summer of 1975.

The bottom line is that 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're 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. Making the entire dish from scratch takes barely any longer than preparing the boxed, veg-less version.

Perfectly Cooked Vegetables

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 vegetables you use, the essential task of this recipe is to cook them perfectly. The most reliable way to do 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, such as parsley and basil. Since 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 sauté the zukes before adding the noodles fresh from the boiling water and still wet. The water will drip off the noodles and into the pan and steam 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 such as peas and broccoli, which need, at most, a mere hint of cooking, can be incorporated the same way as the zucchini. For heartier veggies, such as cauliflower or carrots, steam them before tossing them into the silky, cheesy finished product.

Mac 'n' Cheese Primavera alla Zucchine

This dish combines the best elements of 2 classic pasta dishes: pasta primavera and mac 'n' cheese. It’s extremely flexible in the type of cheeses you add, as well as in which vegetables to include.
Serves 6
  • 1 pound pasta (preferably short, stubby, and hollow, such as penne, which are basically like unbent elbows and hold sauce similarly)
  • 1 pound zucchini, cut into rounds about 1/2-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
  • Zest and juice of 1/4 lemon
  • 1 cup milk
  • 3/4 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 4 quarts of salted (about 1 tablespoon salt) 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. Sauté for about 5 minutes over medium-low heat. When the noodles are done, quickly drain and add them to the zucchini, but don’t stir them together.

Sprinkle the mustard powder, nutmeg, garlic powder, black pepper, and lemon zest and juice 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.

Ari LeVaux writes about food in Missoula, Mont.