Penne with Ramp Pesto, Asparagus & Peas

I’ll admit, I get lazy when it comes to eating seasonally. It’s easier to pop into the grocery store across the street, where lemons, onions and garlic look the same the whole year round, than it is to march all the way up to the Union Square Greenmarket on a windy or rainy spring day. On a Saturday, however, the rules change: I forcibly remove myself from the world wide web and make a point, especially in spring, summer and fall, to go pay a visit to the Union Square farmers. Sometimes I come home with just honey or maple syrup; other times I buy flowers (the lilacs I bought a few weeks ago made it into my newsletter.) This past Saturday I came home with ramps (despite my ramp-ambivalence) and asparagus and a few hours later I whipped up a dinner (the one you see above) that I declared to be one of the best meals I’ve ever made. And I give 100% of the credit to what I found at the farmer’s market.

There’s no better time to eat seasonally than in the spring. You come out of the slog of winter–with those same onions, lemons and garlic referenced earlier–and suddenly real, earthy food starts shooting up from the ground. Ramps, which I disparaged earlier, took on new meaning for me when I watched this Food52 video (shot by my friend Josh Hume) and Amanda Hesser referred to their smell as that of “a freshly mown lawn.” Yes! That’s exactly it; and that’s the kind of sensory experience you can look forward to in April and May after sniffling and blowing your nose all winter long.

The ramps I sauteed a few weeks ago lost some of their flavor (especially when I buried them with too-salty breadcrumbs); but now my approach to ramps, again thanks to Food52, will be to keep them raw. That’s why I love this ramp pesto recipe (submitted to them by saenyc): where a cooked ramp has something of a muted flavor, a raw ramp is intensely springy. From now on, whenever I find ramps, I’ll be dropping them into a blender with toasted walnuts, Parmesan, lemon juice and olive oil.

So here’s the handful of walnuts getting toasted in a non-stick skillet:


You just cook them on medium heat, tossing now and then, until they’re fragrant and a little deeper in color.

Then chop them up, just a little, along with the whole ramps (except for the hairy end of the bulb, which you should remove). I used two bunches of ramps for 1 pound of pasta:


Start with just the ramps and the walnuts in the blender, pushing them down so they get ground up together:


Then add a big pinch of salt, freshly grated Parmesan cheese (about half a cup), the juice from one or two lemons (I used two, and also added the zest) and blend that:


As it’s blending, drizzle in olive oil–about 1/2 a cup–until it looks like pesto:


This is where you taste it. I found, on first taste, that it needed more salt and lemon juice; so I adjusted and re-blended. Then it tasted perfect.

Here’s where I add my own spin to the recipe. Bring a large pot of water to a boil, season really well with salt, and then add one bunch of asparagus which you’ve cut into 1/2-inch pieces:


Boil for 1 minute or so, tasting as it cooks so that the asparagus isn’t completely raw but also so that it doesn’t lose its bite. As soon as it’s the right texture (1 minute is really sufficient) lift it out with a spider into your serving bowl.

Next, add frozen peas: I added half a bag. Sure, you can use fresh garden peas here, but I find that frozen peas are sweeter and work really well:


These you should boil for even less time–maybe 30 seconds?–until they’re just warmed up but not at all cooked. Lift them out with the spider again and add to the asparagus.

Now add your penne to the same water (it should be at a rapid boil) stir around, so it doesn’t stick, and let it cook for whatever amount of time it says to cook it on the package. You want to fully cook it here, because you’re not finishing it in another pan (but lean towards al dente.)

Towards the end of the pasta cooking, take a ladleful of the pasta water and add it to the blender with the pesto and blend it up:


The pesto will become creamier and the starch from the pasta water will help it stick to the pasta when it’s done.

Now, it’s just a matter of stirring it all together. Add your pasta to the bowl with the asparagus and peas, pour the pesto on top (I used all of it) and stir it up:


Taste for seasoning (add more salt, pepper and Parmesan, if it needs it) and serve.

Spring will come alive in your mouth and you’ll wonder why you don’t make it to the farmer’s market more often. Craig got good wine advice from the folks at Sea Grape Wine Shop and brought home this bottle of Sauvignon Blanc:


The wine, the pasta and the rhubarb pie we had for dessert (post coming soon) made this the ultimate spring dinner.


Let's dish!

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