Pasta With Spring Greens

This month, in celebration of spring, we’re featuring easy pasta dishes. First up, Ali from Alexandra’s Kitchen shares this delicious orecchiette paired with spring greens, brown butter and walnuts. (Don’t you want a bowl right now?) Here’s how to make it…

Orecchiette with Spring Greens
by Alexandra Stafford of Alexandra’s Kitchen

I read with envy Mark Bittman’s recent New York Times piece, an ode to the Bay Area’s superlative produce scene. With every detail recounted—from the markets abounding with black trumpet mushrooms and Little Gem lettuces to the backyard surpluses of Meyer lemons—my disdain for winter grew, and a question continued to haunt me: Why must I live in the Northeast?!

And so last Sunday, feeling inspired, I bundled up to head to my local green market, still held indoors in my town’s theater, hoping to return at the very least with a bundle of asparagus and a tub of English peas. Alas, one week into spring, I should have known better than to expect anything more than the usual suspects: potatoes, beets, dark leafy greens—gah!

As I made the rounds from table to table, however, I realized my dismissal of the greens had been premature. What weeks ago had been monstrous and tough, were now small and delicate. When one of the farmers let me sample the Swiss chard and curly kale, both of which tasted sweet and tender, I could feel my winter blues dissolving, my affection for this chilly climate returning.

I purchased a bag of each and later that evening made this pasta, a variation of a recipe I make all winter long with brown butter, Brussels sprouts and walnuts. Here, because the greens are so tender, there is no need to blanch them—draining the pasta directly over the greens in a large colander wilts them slightly, and a quick sauté in a pan with brown butter finishes the job.

Spring has to be near, and when the markets reflect its arrival, I will be giddy with fiddlehead fern glee. But for now, I’ll relish this fleeting, northeastern specialty: Swiss chard and kale as tender as Little Gem lettuce.

Pasta With Spring Greens

Pasta With Spring Greens

You’ll need:

8 cups (about 9 oz.) packed baby Swiss chard, baby kale or spinach*
1 tbsp. kosher salt
1/2 lb. (8 oz.) orecchiette
6 tbsp. unsalted butter

1 cup walnuts

a handful (about 1/4 cup) of grated Pecorino or Parmigiano
salt and freshly cracked pepper, to taste

*These were the greens I found at the market most recently, and they were all incredibly tender. If you are using more mature greens and the stems feel tough, remove greens from stem. Also, asparagus, Brussels sprouts or peas—anything green, really—can be substituted for the greens. If you use one of these tougher vegetables, add them to the pot of pasta during the last two minutes of cooking time.

Place greens in a large bowl and cover with cold water. Let sit for five minutes to allow any dirt to settle. Scoop greens from water and place in a large colander to drain. Any water clinging to the leaves is just fine.

Fill a large pot with water and bring to a boil. Add the tablespoon of salt and stir in the pasta.

In a large sauté pan (large enough to fit the pasta and greens) melt the butter over medium heat. Once the butter begins turning brown and smelling nutty, turn off the heat.

Meanwhile, in a small sauté pan over medium heat, toast the walnuts until they become lightly browned and fragrant, about 10 minutes. (Alternatively, toast the walnuts on a baking sheet at 350F for 8 to 10 minutes—watch closely to prevent burning.) Place the toasted walnuts in a tea towel and rub together to remove papery skin. Transfer walnuts to a sieve and shake again to remove any additional skin. I know this is fussy, but it makes a difference. Set aside.

Boil pasta till al dente. Reserve one half cup of the cooking liquid and set aside—you might not even need this, but it can be nice to have on hand. Drain pasta directly over the colander filled with the greens.

Bring the brown butter back up to temperature over medium or medium-high heat; add the pasta and greens to the pan. Add the walnuts and toss to coat. Grate cheese over top and toss again. Taste. Add more salt (if you have salted the cooking water with the tablespoon of kosher salt, you shouldn’t have to add too much more salt) and pepper to taste. If necessary add some of the pasta cooking liquid to the pan—it’s nice to have reserved pasta cooking liquid on hand if you make this ahead and need to reheat it, but just beware that the cooking liquid is salty. Serve pasta, passing more cheese on the side.

Pasta With Spring Greens

Thank you so much, Alexandra!

P.S. More recipes, including another pasta with walnuts and jalapeño mac and cheese.

(Photos and recipe by Alexandra Stafford. Thanks to Caroline Donofrio for her help with this series)