How to improvise a vegetable pasta

On our show May 19, 2012, I talked about how one of those improvised waste-not-want-not suppers came about -- a pretty good one at that. So here's the story and a shorthand guide to improvising your own recipes from what's on hand.

What ended up becoming Spring Linguine began late, as in 8 p.m., with no time to shop. "Use up what is in the fridge because it's a sin to waste" was the mantra.

Now, I don't believe pasta should be a dumping ground for whatever turns up. That said, I realized nearly every shade and taste of green was in the refrigerator. So I took lots of the dark outer lettuce leaves that I usually save for soup (and often end up throwing out), chard, some wild ramps, a small bunch of green beans, sugar snap peas, and handfuls of the chives that grow like weeds in the yard.

The cooking began with putting the pasta water on to boil. As it heated up, I started browning onions in olive oil in a big shallow skillet. The chopped ramps went in (just the white parts), then maybe four garlic cloves, the lettuce greens and chard, the chopped up peas in their pods and the beans. In, too, went a heaping tablespoon of dried basil (I couldn't find the fresh in the bottom of the freezer), a generous tablespoon of tomato paste and a generous pinch of hot red pepper flakes.

Everything sautéed until the leaves wilted. Meanwhile, the linguine cooked. Just before draining it, I stirred some pasta water (about 2/3 cup) into the greens, then turned all the drained pasta into the skillet and tossed it with lots of shredded Asiago. It turned out to be not bad at all.

Obviously, a recipe is tricky here since it depends upon what you have on hand, but here is a formula to work from no matter what is calling out to you from the fridge.

1. Collect a variety of greens, like mild-tasting lettuces, sharp and tart ones, and everything in between. Go for chards, kale, cabbages and collards -- the more the better, and don't worry if a little wilting is going on. Nothing slimy, please. Anticipate 6 to 8 cups for a pound of pasta.

2. Gather up other vegetables. You don't need a lot; a handful or two of each is fine. They could be broccoli stems, pea pods, green beans, asparagus, cauliflower, thinly sliced winter squashes, thick-cut zucchini, shredded cabbages, carrots, etc. Try to balance between sweet, neutral and assertive. Figure 3 to 4 cups for a pound of pasta.

3. Slice or shave longer cooking vegetables very thin so they cook quickly. Cut faster-cooking ones into cubes and other interesting shapes for variety. Just tear the leaves.

4. You want a robust base, so brown a couple of onions (and/or leeks, scallions or ramps) in olive oil with salt and pepper. Add garlic, lots of fresh herbs (but go easy with sage and rosemary) or less of dried ones to taste, and a little tomato paste for depth. I like a few hot pepper flakes -- not for heat, but for a subtle accent.

5. Cook the pasta as you sauté the greens and vegetables into the onions. Don't overcook them; you want them bright-tasting. Stir in 2/3 cup pasta water to stretch the sauce and thicken it. Toss in the drained pasta, cheese to taste, and you're done.

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pasta

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