March is such a strange month; it's neither here nor there. It's not exactly winter, but in most parts of the country, it's certainly not spring. As a fan of snow, ice, and cold, I find March is slightly depressing; it is symbolic of 'the end' rather than 'rebirth'.
I know, this is pretty odd. Dr. Zhivago is one of my favorite movies, and I've yet to find anyone who shares my angst at the passing of winter, although the late Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman might have empathized. As others are looking forward to cherry blossom time and daffodils, I'm sad to see the snow and icicles melt and dissolve into mud. The only thing that saves me from the sadness of the changing seasons is the anticipation of luscious, juicy, flavorful fruit and vegetables that will soon fill the produce section. I AM tired of withered sweet potatoes!
Peas are one of the first seasonal fruits to signal the change, and I do look forward to their arrival. They're so sweet, and so very green! I love them steamed, simmered, or blanched then tossed in a bit of butter or olive oil. But my favorite preparation is to feature them as cooks do in Southern Italy: with pasta and pancetta.
Pasta e Piselli is a beloved dish in Campania, and to me, is a dish that signifies the beginning of spring. One of my favorite recipes for pasta with peas is from Eleanora's Kitchen, a book that I co-authored with Italian-born Eleanora Scarpetta. It's the perfect 'Lion-to-Lamb' dish, and just right as a starter for Easter dinner.
The following recipe is an adaptation of one of my favorite recipes from her book. The sweetness of the peas and the natural saltiness of the pancetta make for a beautiful starter, which marries well with the rich Lucas & Lewellen Chardonnay, from Santa Barbara. In the mood for red? Luna Vineyards 2005 Napa Valley Sangiovese is also a great match.
Now, I if I could just get to southern Italy for a few weeks, I'm sure my 'farewell to winter' sadness would diminish entirely.
Adapted from Eleanora's Kitchen (Broadway Books, 2004). Eleanora's Kitchen is easily available through online booksellers.
Serves 4 to 6 as a main course or 6 to 8 as a first course. Main course suggestions: Roast leg of lamb, roast porchetta, or baked salmon.
3 garlic cloves, peeled and sliced
¼ cup plus 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 teaspoons salt
2 cups shelled fresh peas or one 10-ounce package frozen peas
1 medium yellow onion, diced
¼ pound piece of pancetta (Eleanora uses pancetta, but organic turkey bacon is a fine--although not traditional--alternative)
One 32-ounce can tomato puree
6 fresh basil leaves, coarsely chopped
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh parsley
Pinch hot red pepper flakes
1 pound small pasta (Eleanora likes tubettini or baby shells, but I find that ziti and penne are also fine.)
Freshly ground black pepper to taste, optional
Grated Pecorino Romano cheese, or Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, optional
• Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.
• Place the sliced garlic in a ramekin or small baking dish. Add 3 tablespoons of the olive oil and sprinkle with ½ teaspoon of the salt. Roast uncovered for 10 to 20 minutes, until the garlic turns slightly golden; do not overcook or garlic may be bitter. Set aside, reserving the oil and the garlic.
• Bring 4 cups of water to a boil in a medium saucepan. Add the peas, cover, and reduce heat so liquid simmers. Cook until tender, about 20 minutes for fresh peas. (If using frozen peas follow the package directions.) Drain and set aside.
• Warm the remaining ¼ cup of olive oil in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Add the onion and pancetta, and cook, stirring, for 2 to 3 minutes, until the onion has softened. Add the tomato puree and ½ teaspoon of the salt and simmer, partially covered, stirring occasionally, until the mixture has thickened slightly. (Note: If the sauce is too thick of has condensed too much, add up to 1 cup of water.)
• Add the basil and red pepper flakes and simmer for 5 minutes longer. Add the parsley and peas and stir to mix. Remove from heat and set aside.
• Combine 4 ½ to 5 quarts of water and the remaining teaspoon of salt in a large pot and bring to a boil. Add the pasta and cook according to the package directions. Drain pasta into a colander, reserving 1 cup of the pasta cooking liquid.
• Add the roasted garlic and its oil to the pasta in the colander and toss gently to mix. Discard the garlic cloves.
• Add the pasta to the tomato sauce with peas and stir just to mix. Add the reserved 1 cup pasta water, if needed. Heat through if necessary. Discard the pancetta. Sprinkle with pepper and Parmigiano-Reggiano or Pecorino Romano, if desired, and serve immediately.