There’s a Korean restaurant in Los Angeles, Ham Hung, that makes the best stewed potatoes and carrots I’ve ever had. Vegetables are usually an afterthought on a pork bulgogi plate, but at Ham Hung they play in the same stadium as the main meal. Every time I eat them, it blows my mind that these boring, basic bitch vegetables that look like they belong next to a Hungry Man pot roast are so flavorful. They’re just as good as the protein.
Well, friends, that’s because they’re cooked in protein. It’s painfully obvious to someone who knows the tricks of the trade. As soon as you try these carrots and potatoes, you know they weren’t prepared with butter. There’s something different, a deliciously rich but hard-to-place flavor that permeates every bite. On a hunch, I asked the owner if the vegetables are stewed in his kimchi beef broth. He gave me a mysterious, nonchalant “yes.” I’m guessing he was wary of divulging any restaurant secrets, because there was no reason to fear offending any vegans—the vegetables were already part of a pork plate.
I know it’s been said that butter and salt are why restaurant food tastes so good, and that’s true, but stock is up there, too. Stocks are the lifeblood of good food. Specifically, chicken stock. You can hide it in a lot of things; it won’t completely change the color of a dish, and unlike beef or pork, which have distinct flavors, chicken stock is actually hard to detect in small quantities. So why not try to sneak it in? It’s the magic juice. There’s no replacement for the hours-long process of reducing herbs, bones, necks, feet, etc. into a deeply flavorful broth. It adds richness and makes just about anything taste better. It’s that untraceable element that makes you go, “Damn, why does this taste so good?” If you introduce any amount of meat to vegetables, it’s going to add layers of complexity. Bacon fat in salad dressing, pancetta and green beans, ham hocks and collard greens, latkes cooked in schmaltz. Arborio rice soaks up chicken stock and swells to make a creamy, toothsome risotto. Sauté greens with chicken stock and those leaves become infused with its diverse flavors.
I learned this working sauté at an Italian restaurant when I was 16. The chef, Paul Longobardi, reached over me one day and knocked a double-boiler of chicken stock into a pan of pasta primavera. This was not great, because pasta primavera is vegetarian. Conceivably, the dish was ruined. However, Paul looked at me like it wasn’t the worst thing to just happen. He didn’t shrug or really even flinch. He simply said, “Flavor.” Don’t freak out; I didn’t serve the primavera that day (and the cooks I know have that same commitment to not being flagrant assholes), but the most important part of this story is that Paul was 100% right. It did add flavor.
Recently I made a pasta primavera in the spirit of this incident, and it reminded me of what I already knew: The best vegetables are cooked with meat.
Pasta primavera is never something I order at a restaurant. I see the same boring zucchini and squash medley in just about every iteration. Bell peppers are as bland as it gets. The recipe always says to roast the vegetables all together, or to put them in a crowded pan as if they’ll all cook the same way, which I’ve never understood. Each vegetable has such distinct properties, I think they should each be treated differently. In this recipe, I cook each vegetable separately, and then assemble them atop a pasta cooked in chicken stock. It’ll almost look like a nice salad. And if pasta water is the secret to good pasta, then imagine how it tastes with the magic juice.
Meaty Pasta Primavera
- 2 whole leeks, cleaned, leaves discarded, and chopped thin into rings
- 15-20 cherry tomatoes
- Olive oil
- Salt and pepper, to taste
- 1 cup cremini mushrooms, sliced
- Fresh thyme, to taste
- 2 Tbsp. flat leaf parsley, chopped
- 2 Tbsp. fresh oregano, chopped
- 2 cloves garlic, sliced thin
- 1 medium shallot, diced
- ½ cup chicken stock
- 4 Tbsp. butter
- ½ lb. pasta (I’m using fresh orecchiette)
In a large skillet on medium-low heat, melt a tablespoon of butter and add the rings of chopped leeks. Stir until the leeks are tender, but still have a little crunch, approximately 10-15 minutes. Add a pinch of salt and set aside in a separate bowl.
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. Toss the cherry tomatoes in a few tablespoons of olive oil, salt, and pepper. Place them on a sheet pan and cook until they are blistered and start to burst, about 20 minutes. Set aside in a separate bowl.
I like creminis because they have lower moisture than white mushrooms, so they’re harder to screw up. High heat is the key here: Once the pan is very hot on medium-high, throw the mushrooms in dry. If you have to add a tablespoon of butter or a little oil, that’s fine. Cook until no water remains and the mushrooms are browned. Add some fresh thyme, then cook for another minute. Set aside in a separate bowl.
I use fresh orecchiette. I like making orecchiette because you don’t need a machine. You just roll out long snakes of dough and then press your thumb to make “little ears.” This was the first pasta I learned how to make on my own.
Once a pot of heavily salted water is up to a rolling boil, throw in the fresh pasta. It’s going to finish cooking in some chicken stock, so whichever pasta you use, make sure you take it out of the water while it’s still a little firm.
Meanwhile, in a separate pan, heat a tablespoon of olive oil on medium heat and add the thin garlic and minced shallot. Once the garlic is slightly golden and the shallot translucent and fragrant, add ¼ cup of chicken stock. Turn up the heat a little bit, but if it starts to rapidly boil turn it back down.
The pasta should be ready by now, and when it is, transfer it immediately to the pan. A couple tablespoons of the pasta water is good, too. Finish cooking the pasta in the chicken stock, tasting every minute or so to check firmness. (Fresh orecchiette are little tanks, so they can handle some extra cooking. If you were to use, say, angel hair, this step would obliterate the pasta.) There should be some reserve chicken stock available, and if you need it, add a few tablespoons at a time and continue to cook. When the pasta starts to take on the color of the chicken stock and is soft but still a little firm, add the last 2 tablespoons of butter and stir on low heat. Add salt and pepper, throw in the chopped parsley and oregano, and flip the pan a few times.
Assemble all the elements in a bowl like in the photo above. And that’s it, gang: a pasta primavera that doesn’t suck.