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Bounty of Perfect Spring leads to perfect pasta

Renee Studebaker
Fresh Russian kale, sugar snap peas, spring onions and fennel bulbs all go into a pasta dish.

This hardly seems possible, but I have not yelled at a garden-thieving critter or cursed the weather gods in almost two months.

Has Central Austin shifted into an alternate reality? One in which I am growing spring vegetables, herbs and flowers in a garden where all the good bugs eat the bad bugs and the squirrels eat only native nuts; where the nights are cool, but not too cool, and the afternoons are warm and sunny; and where rain showers come when needed.

Oh, how I wish it could last a little longer. Any day now, Perfect Spring's shadow side, Horrible Summer, will swoop in and scorch the moist soil, fry the tender snap pea vines and shock the leafy greens into suicidal blooming and seeding. And then, as if by cue, Horrible Summer's evil minions will move in. I'm talking about stem-chomping grasshoppers, tomato-sucking stink bugs and leaf-destroying spider mites.

OK, so maybe I've been watching too much "Lost," but (sigh) I don't want to leave this island of Perfect Spring. My vegetable garden is happier, healthier and more productive than it's been in years. The sugar snap peas just keep on blooming and popping out sweet crunchy pods. The fennel bulb plants I've been setting out in staggered plantings since February are growing like weeds. The Swiss chard and kale are still happy, too. So, needless to say, I've been eating (and giving away) a lot of spring greens and vegetables this spring.

A little garlic, a splash of olive oil and a good sauté pan is all you really need to have dinner guests swooning over the sweet bounty of a good spring harvest. But this spring, the harvests have just kept on coming, so I've been playing around in the kitchen, looking for a new way to make good use of the season's offerings. That's how I came up with my new favorite recipe: Spring Pasta Rustica (recipe below).

(Sidenote: If you've never eaten a sugar snap pea raw, right off the vine, you must add it to your list of things to do before you die. I'm not joking. It's that good.)

Spring Pasta Rustica is going to be a keeper at my house. It's an easy to make one-dish meal that's as comforting and satisfying as a big bowl of your favorite mac 'n' cheese, while still providing a healthy dose of fresh vegetables. My significant other (and No. 1 recipe taster) loves it and seems to never tire of eating it; we have decided it's the perfect dish for a date-night dinner at home. My 18-year-old stepdaughter, who visited in late March for spring break, also loves it; and so did her girlfriend who joined us for dinner. A few weeks later, when my brother and his wife came to visit, I still had snap peas, greens, and fennel in the garden. So I made my new favorite dish once again, and this time served it al fresco in the backyard garden. It was a lovely garden-to-table dining experience, and the meal got a big thumbs-up.

And finally, when it came time to pick a dish to make on my assigned cooking night at my annual women's group get-away, I knew I had to make my new favorite recipe for my best girlfriends. They laughed and teased when I unpacked my carry-on cooler bag stuffed with sugar snap peas, fennel bulb, Swiss Chard, Russian kale and spring onions (plus a package of spicy Italian sausage from Peach Creek Farm). But later, when we sat down to eat, their chuckles turned to ahhs and umms and "This is SO good."

Thank you, Perfect Spring. Please come again next year.; 445-3946

Spring Pasta Rustica

1 cup sugar snap peas, whole, stem ends removed

Olive oil for sautéeing

1 large fennel bulb (with green stalks and fronds removed), coarsely chopped, about 1 cup

1 package Peach Creek Farm's spicy Italian sausage, or 5-6 links of an equally good sausage, casings removed, crumbled

4 small spring onions (with green tops removed), sliced in thin rings, about 1/2 cup

1 large clove garlic, minced

About 1 cup (gently packed) mixed greens (a mix of kale and Swiss chard is especially good), ribs removed, coarsely sliced

1/2 cup red wine (a spicy, chewy shiraz is a good choice here)

2 14.5-oz, cans Muir Glen diced tomatoes, including juice

1 to 11/2 cups good quality chicken broth (homemade if possible)

3 small sprigs of fresh French or English thyme, leaves only, chopped

3-4 small sprigs of fresh oregano, leaves only, chopped

Sea salt and fresh ground pepper to taste

Enough rigatoni (or your favorite pasta) to make 6-7 cups, cooked al dente, drained, with 1/4 cup of pasta cooking water reserved

Parmigiano-Reggiano, grated coarsely

A few fennel fronds for garnish

Drop pea pods into a pan of boiling water and cook for just a few minutes; remove peas, rinse with cold water, drain and set aside. Add splash of oil and fennel to a hot stainless steel skillet; reduce heat to medium low and cook slowly, stirring occasionally until edges are lightly carmelized and fennel is tender. While fennel is cooking, heat a large heavy stainless steel skillet over medium heat and cook sausage until edges are well-browned. Stir onions and garlic into sausage and continue cooking for a few minutes more. Add greens, cover sausage pan, and reduce heat to low until green are lightly wilted. Remove lid, add wine and stir gently to dislodge bits of browned sausage from bottom of pan. Then stir in tomatoes and continue cooking on low heat. Add broth to pan of fennel and again stir bottom of pan to loosen browned bits. Pour fennel and broth into sausage mixture, and then add peas, herbs, salt and pepper, pasta and pasta water. Combine ingredients gently and simmer for a few more minutes. Taste and correct seasoning if needed. Serve in pasta bowls garnished with fennel fronds and a generous sprinkling of cheese. Serves 6-8.

Notes: Peach Creek Farm's spicy Italian sausage (available at all locations of the Austin Farmers Market) is well-seasoned and so gives this dish a huge flavor boost. Keep that in mind when you're choosing a sausage. Spring onions (the tender stage that's larger than a scallion but smaller than a full-sized onion) are available at most farmers' markets around town right now, but any other onion you have on hand would be fine. This recipe would also work well with shrimp or chicken, or without meat, but add extra fennel and hot pepper flakes to pick up the flavor. When my garden tomatoes are ripe, I'll use them instead of canned. And when my spring peas poop out, I'll sub in tender crisp green beans.

- Renee Studebaker

One bad worm

Although this spring has indeed seemed perfect, I should acknowledge that my garden has not been pest free. Just last weekend, I had to squish a couple of cutworms, but not until after they had already cut off my baby basil transplants at the soil and sliced through two young artichoke stems. I should have already installed little cutworm-blocking cardboard collars, but the garden was doing so well I let my guard down. A strip of aluminum foil wrapped around young stems would also work.