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Thinking Outside the Cave

Working with food and recipes as much as I do, I find that I spend a lot of time in the cave.

I don't mean a cheese cave or a wine cellar. (That'd be lovely, wouldn't it?) No, the cave on my brain is Plato's cave. That is, his famous Allegory of the Cave. Take just a moment now and think back to your high school humanities class or that Philosophy 101 in college. Nothing bubbling up to the top of your mind?

I haven't read the allegory in a few years, so I may be fuzzy on the details, but I'll give you my version of a summary. This is the story that involves a group of prisoners sitting in a cave and watching shadows on the wall in front of them. The parade of darkened shapes before them make up that entire universe. They can't remember anything before this time of ghostly reflections, so to them, the shadows really are the world.

Meanwhile, outside the cave, there's people and trees and puppies and pizza and everything else that makes up a proper universe. All these shapes are casting the shadows those poor, ignorant folks in the cave are experiencing.

One of the poor souls in the cave breaks loose, wanders out into the sunshine and realizes everything he's ever known has been a mere reflection of something so much more defined, colorful, well-rounded and robust.

The actual form of the puppy is so much fuzzier and warm and slobbery than its shadow. Pizza is crispy on the bottom, lightly bubbly and seared on the top, and layered in shocking green basil that perfumes the air and intertwines with thin slices of creamy, fresh mozzarella. This is not the mere shadow of pizza that appears in the cave. This is the true form.

Of course, when the enlightened man returns to the cave to try to explain to his former neighbors the true delight of pizza and puppies, they consider him a babbling madman blinded by the light. Fooled into believing their shadows constitute the true world, they continue enjoying their darkened little universe, forever ignorant of the larger world.

So then, you can understand why Plato's cave would so often pop into my head as I comb through recipes and eat my way through the world. Recent dining life seems to be a series of revelations about the form vs the shadow versions of foods. I grew up with Pizza Hut Pizza and Swiss Miss Hot Chocolate. What a realization then, when I discovered the joys of New York-style coal-fired pizza and the decadent melted liquid chocolate served served at such chocolatiers as Jacques Torres. Shadowy frozen pizzas and cups of warm cocoa dust really didn't stand a chance.

The shadowy cave appeared in the forefront of my mind as I came across this recipe for Le Cirque's Pasta Primavera in Molly O'Neill's New York Cookbook. It brought that familiar "ah-ha!" moment, because this is what a Pasta Primavera is actually trying to be.

Those boring primavera entrées sitting in the freezer case of every local supermarket are a far cry from the pine nuts, chopped chiles, fresh basil, olive oil, rich cream and fresh tomatoes of the Sirio Maccioni original. I'll bet he used fresh pasta, too.

For your reading pleasure... Pasta Primavera, 1.0. Ain't nothin' like the real thing, baby.

Le Cirque's Pasta Primavera

1 bunch broccoli, trimmed and cut into bite-sized florets
2 small zucchinis, quartered lengthwise and cut into 1-inch lengths
4 asparagus spears (about 5 inches long), peeled, trimmed, and cut into thirds
1 1/2 cups green beans, trimmed and cut into 1-inch pieces
1/2 cup fresh or frozen peas
4 tablespoons olive oil
2 cups thinly sliced mushrooms
1 teaspoon finely chopped fresh red or green chile, or about 1/2 teaspoon dried red pepper flakes
1 teaspoon chopped garlic
3 cups seeded, diced ripe tomatoes, reserve the juice separately
1/4 cup finely chopped fresh parsley
6 fresh basil leaves
1 pound spaghetti or spaghettini
4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) butter
1/2 cup heavy (whipping) cream, or more if needed
2/3 cup freshly grated parmesan cheese
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
2/3 cup toasted pine nuts

1. Cook the broccoli, zucchini, asparagus, and green beans in boiling salted water until crisp, but tender, about 4 minutes. Add the peas and cook for 1 minute more. Drain and refresh the vegetables in cold water. Drain and set aside in a mixing bowl.

2. Heat 1 tablespoon of the olive oil in a nonreactive large skillet over medium heat. When hot, add the mushrooms and chile and sauté for about 2 minutes. Add the remaining 3 tablespoons olive oil, the garlic, and tomatoes and cook, stirring gently so as not to break up the tomatoes, for about 4 minutes. Add the parsley and basil; stir and set aside.

3. Cook the spaghetti in boiling salted water until just al dente; the spaghetti must retain just a slight resilience in the center. Drain.

4. Meanwhile, in a nonreactive pot large enough to hold the drained spaghetti and all of the vegetables, melt the butter over medium heat. Add the cream and Parmesan and stir constantly until heated through. When hot, reduce the heat and cook gently on and off the heat until smooth. Add the spaghetti and toss quickly to blend. Add half of the vegetables and pour in the reserved juice from the tomatoes. Toss and stir over very low heat until the mixture is heated through, 5 minutes. Season with salt and pepper.

5. Add the remaining vegetables and toss gently. If the sauce seems too dry, add additional cream, but the sauce should not be soupy. Adjust the seasonings. Add the pine nuts and give the mixture one final toss. Serve in heated soup or spaghetti bowls. Spoon some of the tomato mixture over each serving. Serve immediately.

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12.07.2006

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