Fusilli primavera

Fusilli primavera

In Campania, pasta, primi piatti by Frank33 Comments

I had always thought of “Pasta Primavera” as a modern American invention, probably a product of the rage for “northern Italian” food in the 1970s and 1980s. I remember reading about it years ago in some gourmet magazine and asked Angelina to make me it for me. “What’s that?” she replied with a bemused chuckle. And in all my years there I’ve never actually come cross it in Italy, either.

So imagine my surprise, as I was leafing through my trusty copy of the classic La cucina napoletana, when I found a entry for fusilli primavera, described as the “personal recipe” of a well known chef named Gerardo Modugno. So even if there is no shortage of faux Italian dishes called Pasta Primavera, a truly Italian version of it really does exist, I realized. Or at least it did in the kitchen of a certain upper class Naples household in the mid 20th century.

For the most part, Italian cookery is about dishes that use a limited number of best-quality ingredients, simply but expertly prepared. I’ve written about how you should be wary of the authenticity of supposedly Italian recipes with a long list of ingredients and multiple steps. Well, my friends, this recipe is an exception that proves the rule. It calls for many ingredients and entails lots of different steps—and mind you, this is my streamlined version of the original… !

But we shouldn’t be too surprised. This version of Pasta Primavera comes out of the tradition of French-inspired chefs that labored in the kitchens of the 18th and 19th century Neapolitan nobility, a class of chefs called the monzù. Modugno is apparently still alive and claims to be the last of the monzù. (More on them in the Notes below.) So no, this is not a quick and easy weeknight dinner dish, but it is truly, authentically Italian, steeped in culinary history.

Ingredients

Serves 4-6

  • 500g (1 lb) fusilli

For spring vegetable condimento:

  • 1 kilo (2 lbs) asparagus, about 2 or 3 bunches
  • 350g (12 oz) frozen artichokes
  • 250g (9 oz) frozen peas
  • 2 or 3 fresh spring onions, finely minced
  • 50g (1-1/2 oz) pancetta
  • White wine
  • Olive oil
  • Butter
  • Salt and pepper

For the aspargus purée:

  • 2 Tbs butter
  • A handful of fresh basil leaves
  • A sprig or two of fresh parsley
  • Salt and pepper

For the egg and cheese enrichment:

  • 1 egg
  • 1 Tb Parmesan cheese (or more, to taste)

Direction

Set a pot of well salted water to boil. Trim the bottoms off the asparagus and, if they are thick, peel off their skins from just below their tips downwards.

When the water comes to a boil, add the asparagus and cook until fully tender. Remove the asparagus from the water with a skimmer or tongs. (Don’t drain the water out of the pot.) Let the asparagus cool then cut the tips of the asparagus into short lengths.

Put the rest of the stalks into a blender, along with a good knob of butter, a basil leaf or two, a spring of parsley, a pinch of salt and a ladleful of the water in which the asparagus have boiled. Blend well, adding more water if needed to obtain a smooth, pourable purée. Taste and adjust for seasoning.

Meanwhile, defrost the frozen artichoke hearts under warm water, then drain and cut them into thin wedges. Combine with the peas and asparagus tips in a bowl and have this medley at the ready.

Now add the fusilli to the pot where you’ve cooked your asparagus and cook until al dente.

While the pasta is cooking, warm a good pour of olive oil and a knob of butter in a large skillet. Add the pancetta and let it render, then add the spring onion and sauté just until it wilts. Add the artichokes, peas and asparagus tips. Sauté everything together over lively heat for a few minutes, seasoning with salt and pepper and moistening with a drizzle of white wine as you go.

When the vegetables are tender and have had a chance to absorb the flavors of the onion and pancetta, remove about half the vegetable mixture and set aside.

Add the asparagus purée to the skillet with the remaining vegetables, mix well and set over very low heat.

Mix the egg and grated cheese together in a bowl and reserve.

When the pasta is almost, but not quite al dente, drain and add to the skillet. Toss the pasta with the sautéed vegetables over low heat, loosening the pasta with a ladleful of the pasta water if need be. Keep tossing for a minute or two, until the pasta is well coated, then add the egg and cheese mixture, and mix it in well, allowing the sauce to thicken slightly, as if making a carbonara.

Serve the fusilli immediately, topped with the rest of the sautéed vegetables, along with additional grated Parmesan on the side for those who want it.

Fusilli primavera

Notes on fusilli primavera

I’ve called for frozen peas and artichokes here. That’s not so much about convenience, but simply quality. Here on the Eastern Seaboard of the US and I would guess elsewhere, too, the quality of fresh peas and artichokes—when you can find them—is pretty poor. The peas are often mealy, artichokes usually wilted and mottled. And both can be very expensive. Frozen peas and artichokes, on the other hand, are actually quite acceptable. But if you live in California or somewhere you can find good quality fresh produce, by all means enjoy!

A personal note: Of all the pasta shapes I’ve tried, fusilli aka “corkscrews” are actually my least favorite. For this dish I’ve used a particular kind of fusilli, called fusilli avellinesi, named after the town of Avellino in Campania, which I find much more appealing. Anyway, this dish would work with most short pasta shapes—penne, pennette, farfalle—quite well. Avoid spaghetti or other long pastas, no matter what you might read on the interwebs.

Modugno’s Original Recipe

Besides using frozen peas and artichokes, I’ve simplified Modugno’s original recipe a bit for the time-constrained modern cook. Modugno calls for cooking each of the vegetables separately. The peas are sautéed in butter with onion and pancetta. The artichokes, cut into wedges, are cooked separately in oil and butter, with a splash of white wine. The peas and asparagus purée are then added to the artichokes, along with a ladleful of the asparagus water, basil and parsley. Everything cooks together for a few minutes before adding the cooked pasta and then the egg and cheese enrichment. In my view, the separate cooking of the vegetables would change the dish very little indeed, not enough to justify the extra time and effort for what is—at least by the usual Italian standards—an already elaborate dish.

The other things I’ve done is to actually reduce the amount of vegetables. Believe it or not. This recipe already “overloads” the pasta by modern standards, as you can readily tell from the photographs here. But the original recipe for fusilli primavera called for double the amounts of asparagus and artichokes. Try it if you’re feeling particularly hungry.

A Short History of the Monzù

The term Monzù, a Neapolitan corruption of the French “monsieur”, was used as an honorific title bestowed on chefs working the noble households in Southern Italy and Sicily. Some say that the first monzù was indeed a certain Monsieur Robert, the chef of Joachim Murat, King of Naples during the Napoleonic period in the early 19th century, although other sources maintain that the monzù tradition started at least a century before that.

The monzù practiced a kind of haute cuisine applying French techniques to ingredients typical of the Italian south. Besides this recipe for fusilli primavera, Francesconi devotes a whole section of her La cucina napoletana to similarly elaborate recipes for maccheroni in the monzù style. (In another surprise, one of them is for perciatelli with chicken—a combination that most Italians today consider an abomination.) The extravagant pasta timballi of the kind featured in the 1996 film Big Night are also typical of the style.

Apart from Monsieur Robert, the monzù were generally Italians. Although the term is associated with Neapolitan aristocratic cookery—Naples being the capital of southern Italy, then the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies—Francesconi says that the monzù almost always haled from Sicily and Abruzzo. They were often sent by their noble employers to France to study. The French influence was pervasive during this period. It’s not coincidental that some of the most famous Neapolitan dishes, such as ragù and gattò, carry corrupted French names. According to Francesconi, the monzù eventually turned from cooking in homes to social clubs and then to opening their own restaurants, many of which became renowned. (She names a few of these, but sadly they all seemed to have disappeared.)

If you read Italian and want to know more about the the monzù, check out Maestri Monzù, website of the Academy of Neapolitan Aristocratic Cuisine, founded by none other than Gerardo Modugno.

Fusilli primavera

Total Time: 1 hour

Yield: Serves 4-6

Fusilli primavera

Ingredients

  • 500g (1 lb) fusilli
  • For spring vegetable condimento:
  • 1 kilo (2 lbs) asparagus, about 2 or 3 bunches
  • 350g (12 oz) frozen artichokes
  • 250g (9 oz) frozen peas
  • 2 or 3 fresh spring onions, finely minced
  • 50g (1-1/2 oz) pancetta
  • White wine
  • Olive oil
  • Butter
  • Salt and pepper
  • For the aspargus purée:
  • 2 Tbs butter
  • A handful of fresh basil leaves
  • A sprig or two of fresh parsley
  • Salt and pepper
  • For the egg and cheese enrichment:
  • 1 egg
  • 1 Tb Parmesan cheese (or more, to taste)

Directions

  1. Set a pot of well salted water to boil. Trim the bottoms off the asparagus and, if they are thick, peel off their skins from just below their tips downwards.
  2. When the water comes to a boil, add the asparagus and cook until fully tender. Remove the asparagus from the water with a skimmer or tongs. (Don't drain the water out of the pot.) Let the asparagus cool then cut the tips of the asparagus into short lengths.
  3. Put the rest of the stalks into a blender, along with a good knob of butter, a basil leaf or two, a spring of parsley, a pinch of salt and a ladleful of the water in which the asparagus have boiled. Blend well, adding more water if needed to obtain a smooth, pourable purée. Taste and adjust for seasoning.
  4. Meanwhile, defrost the frozen artichoke hearts under warm water, then drain and cut them into thin wedges. Combine with the peas and asparagus tips in a bowl and have this medley at the ready.
  5. Now add the fusilli to the pot where you've cooked your asparagus and cook until al dente.
  6. While the pasta is cooking, warm a good pour of olive oil and a knob of butter in a large skillet. Add the pancetta and let it render, then add the spring onion and sauté just until it wilts. Add the artichokes, peas and asparagus tips. Sauté everything together over lively heat for a few minutes, seasoning with salt and pepper and moistening with a drizzle of white wine as you go. 
  7. When the vegetables are tender and have had a chance to absorb the flavors of the onion and pancetta, remove about half the vegetable mixture and set aside.
  8. Add the asparagus purée to the skillet with the remaining vegetables, mix well and set over very low heat.
  9. Mix the egg and grated cheese together in a bowl and reserve.
  10. When the pasta is almost, but not quite al dente, drain and add to the skillet. Toss the pasta with the sautéed vegetables over low heat, loosening the pasta with a ladleful of the pasta water if need be. Keep tossing for a minute or two, until the pasta is well coated, then add the egg and cheese mixture, and mix it in well, allowing the sauce to thicken slightly, as if making a carbonara.
  11. Serve the fusilli immediately, topped with the rest of the sautéed vegetables, along with additional grated Parmesan on the side for those who want it.
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Comments

  1. Frank, I have some strozzapreti on hand and they look a lot like the fusilli avellinesi that you recommend. What do you think? Would they be suitable? I think I will give them a try. I always wanted to be monzu. Thanks.

  2. c’è sempre qualcosa da imparare quando passo a trovarti Frank, grazie per tutte queste interessanti informazioni e per la ricetta , i fusilli sono un formato allegro e gustoso, il tuo sugo li esalta ! Buona settimana

  3. I too, thought this was an American invention, so I’m glad to see you found a recipe for it in an authentic Italian source, albeit complicated. I love that particular fusilli shape you chose and buy it whenever I see it.

    1. Author

      It is a lot of fun, isn’t it? As I said I don’t care for most fusilli-type pastas, but the avellinesi are a winner.

  4. As always you have written an informative and interesting blog post. I also like it that you streamline these wonderful recipes of yours.

    1. Author

      Thanks, Gerlinde! Traditional recipes are my passion, but they were devised in times where people (housewives anyway) had so much more time than we do today. So I love to simplify my recipes to save time, where I can without compromising on the result.

  5. I’ve never heard of La cucina napoletana, but I’d love to peruse it sometime! What an extensive and wonderful post on this dish and the history of the Monzù! Love it, explains a lot!

    I would love this fusilli primavera (sans peas, though). I’m just terrible with peas!

    Tomorrow will be pizza though! LA is hosting an event called A Tutta Pizza fest and Enzo Coccia will even be there! Looking forward to lots of “real” pizza (no Domino’s or Pizza Hut will be there)! 😉

    1. Author

      You should definitely pick up that book on your next trip to Italy. It’s essential reading if you enjoy Neapolitan cookery. And enjoy your pizza, sounds like a fun event!

  6. Sounds really delicious. I like flavorful pasta with vegetables that aren’t heavy. Today bought baby artichokes (hard to find even in No California) and peas home from Farmer’s Market so will make this pasta. I very much enjoyed the discussion regarding the Monzu. Thanks Frank!

  7. What a wonderful dish!! I love that you use so many vegetables. There are so many versions of this dish — I’m so glad you told us some of its history. Thank you, and buon weekend.

  8. good post frank + one question: which edition of Francesconi do u possess? I cannot find it in my first edition (actually even fusilli as a pasta shape are not featured at all)
    thanks
    stefano

    1. Author

      I have the 3rd edition (1997). The numbering is probably different from the 1st edition, but it’s recipe no. 184, in case you’re interested, in the chapter entitled “La pasta con gli ortaggi”. And the full title of the recipe is actually “Eliche o fusilli primavera”. For purpose of the post, I used the name for the pasta shape that most of my readers would recognize more readily.

      1. I find this fascinating: no, I can confirm that in her first edition this dish was not present. How interesting: it possibly means that at the time of the first edition (1965) she did not think that the dish belonged to the canon of Neapolitan cooking, to change her mind 32 yrs later, when a new revised edition (with new recipes added) was published. Which proves the cooking is ever changing, adapting, evolving (I now want to check the new edition to see what she though she add to add to well document Neapolitan food)
        st

  9. Fascinating info on the monzù, Frank! I am so glad to know more about this moment if Neoplitan cuisine.

    While the recipe has a few more ingredients than the usual, it actually seems pretty straightforward and not too hard. I’d even be willing to tackle this on a weeknight! We look forward to trying this soon, now that all three veggies are in season here! (Yep, I might just cook my own artichokes!)

    1. Author

      You’re right David. It’s actually not a hard dish to make, in the end, despite the number of steps. Hope you like it… And I’m impressed (and slightly jealous) that you grow your own artichokes!

  10. Great post Frank! I sort of remember reading, in some gourmet magazine a zillion years ago, that some American chef was asked to whip up something for an older famous actress who was on some kind of diet so he came up with pasta primavera. Actually, when I think about it, the primavera dressing is sort of like vignarola. And you simply cannot go wrong with great veggies and pasta, in my opinion! Although I add a bit of lightly sauteed proscuitto to mine…

    1. Author

      It may be that the pasta primavera that most people know is a modern invention. Most of the recipes are funny, as they typically mix lots of vegetables, including either fall/winter vegetables like mushrooms or summer vegetables like bell peppers. Actual spring vegetables are often entirely missing…! Anyway, you’re right about it being very close to a kind of vignarola dressing for pasta. And a little prosciutto never hurt anybody. 😉

  11. Interesting. I did not know that Primavera (as I know it) was not an Italian dish, but perhaps I should have known better. Also, no cream. Hmm.

    It looks great!

  12. My style of Pasta Primavera! Honestly, I generally gasp when see the more standard American version served in “Italian Restaurants”, often with a heavy cream sauce. Pasta and vegetables are an iconic Italian combination, harking back to cuccina povera. Thank you for again presenting your readers with a well documented recipe.

  13. I’m a sucker for primavera anything, but then my palate knows Italian-American much better than it knows actual Italian. In any case, this is a nice looking dish. I agree on fresh peas — we can get local ones for maybe two weeks in the spring, and even then they may not be as good as frozen ones. The quality of frozen is usually at least pretty good, often excellent. Good dish — thanks.

    1. Author

      Thanks for stopping by, John! No fresh peas at all in the markets here so far… And the artichokes, as usual, are expensive and disappointing.

  14. What a wonderful dish indeed! funny that you mention Angelina not knowing about pasta primavera because I also did not know about it until I moved abroad in the 1990s. But of course in Italy we cook pasta with vegetables all the time and I am glad to read you have unearthed a Neapolitan version of it. Buonissima.

  15. Lovely recipe. I love pasta with vegetables. I have a similar one with peas and asparagus in my book The Mamma Mia! Diet. I will try with artichokes too. It is a delicious addition. Thanks for sharing Frank! Paola

    1. Author

      Thanks, Paola! I’ll have to check out your recipe, sounds very nice indeed.

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