In the past couple of weeks, Italy has been taking baby steps towards some semblance of normality. Provided we wear masks, we can now venture outside our homes to go for a jog, take our children for walks or visit family and friends within our home regions. Cafes and restaurants have been allowed to reopen, except in Campania and my adopted region of Piedmont. In these two regions, home delivery and takeaway meals remain the only options for business for the time being. Hairdressers and beauticians have just been granted permission to reopen. Masses can also be officiated again. More and more Italians, my hubby included, are making the transition to working at their offices, after over two months of ‘smart-working’. Employers, however, are obliged to allow employees with children 14 years and under to continue to work from home. Sadly, for the country’s children, day care centres and schools will remain closed until the new school year in September commences. There is talk, however, of opening centri estivi (vacation care centres) to children aged 3 and over as of June. For the moment, all learning is being conducted online, despite the obvious drawbacks of this mode of education.
Many Italians are disappointed the easing of the restrictions in the past couple of weeks hasn’t been fast enough. This very morning, I was at our local cafe-patisserie, Alicino, picking up the pastry cream filled croissants I had ordered for my family and I for breakfast. The pastry chef owner told me he was hoping and praying for confirmation that he’d at least be able to reopen on a not just made to order basis as he and his wife had just recently done. He made no secret of the fact that it had been very difficult for them to accept that their business had to remain closed for recent special events like Fathers’ Day, Easter and Mothers Day.
I refrained from saying this earlier this morning but a big part of me is inclined to prefer the baby steps the government has been taking. Don’t get me wrong. As a teacher, I’m disappointed about the school situation. I’m genuinely worried about the psychological side effects of the lockdown and the consequences of the economic downturn . I can’t wait to get a hair cut and to be able to enjoy a morning cappuccino and brioche with friends and cooking class students at Alicino like I used to. But we can’t rule out the possibility of a second wave occurring, nor of another, even more lethal epidemic spreading in the future. Also, we may just have to accept that certain aspects of our lives will have to change, hard as that may be.
Despite these less than sunny thoughts surfacing from time to time, I’m feeling cautiously optimistic. It might because of the walks, the warmer weather and the fresh air we can finally enjoy as a family outside the confines of our home. It might be the vibrant marigolds we’ve planted to accompany our herbs and borlotti beans on our balcony garden. I have a feeling though that it’s because I started shopping at the market in Corso Brunelleschi again in mid-April, possibly my favourite time of the year on the agricultural calendar. Every morning, producers and vendors set up their stalls and display their produce as they always have. The only signs that these aren’t ordinary times: vendors wearing masks and gloves and the cordoned entrance on the corner of Corso Francia and Corso Brunelleschi so vigili or local police can stem the flow of shoppers and ensure a metre’s distance is maintained by everyone. Life, or something like it, just has to go on.
Pasta con piselli
In pre-COVID times, I nearly always planned our meals around whatever verdura or vegetable I found myself impulsively buying at the market. I was particularly susceptible during springtime. If I came home with asparagus for example, these nearly always made their way into a risotto or baked al cartoccio. If I came home with agretti, I blanched and sauteed them in oil and garlic and paired them with spaghetti. If I came home with a bag full of peas, these were paired with cuttlefish to make a distinctly black-tinged yet delicious stew or one of my favourite primi – pasta con piselli or pasta with peas.
The national lockdown has taught me to plan for meals more carefully. Store cupboard favourites have often been the protagonists of many of our meals. It’s now a tradition for Monday lunch to be lentil soup. Thursday on the other hand is always spaghetti alla puttanesca. Ever since I resumed market-shopping in mid-April though, I’ve always been able to rely on the presence of kilos of pea pods gracing the bancarelle or produce stalls in Corso Brunelleschi. And that means the above-mentioned pasta with peas gets a look in on our meal planner at least once a week right now.
I’ve eaten this dish on and off throughout my life. Early on, my mother provided me with the template for a quick but comforting plateful of pasta made with ditaloni (also called tubetti) paired with a condimento of minced onion, diced pancetta , frozen peas and a couple of fresh mint leaves to contrast the saltiness of the pancetta and accentuate the sweetness of the peas. Mum has always prided herself on the fact she’s nearly always bought or grown fresh vegetables. Frozen Birds Eye peas were one of her few concessions to the colder aisles of the supermarket. Fresh peas simply did not abound in suburban Sydney and were very much a rare treat.
That template changed slightly after a summer in Sicily fifteen years ago. In early summer, the locals’ variant of pasta with peas was a incredibly rich tomato sauce, combined with the freshest, sweetest, plumpest specimens imaginable. After moving to Turin three years later, I made a point of buying kilos and kilos of pea pods from the market every spring to make the dish I loved so much from my childhood. I so looked forward to the ritual of springtime podding that I gradually forgot that peas in plastic bags existed. Don’t hesitate though to use these for the recipe below if you want your year round fix of this dish or, if buying fresh, seasonal peas is just not practical for you. It will still be delicious.
The ingredient template my family provided me with in my younger days is more or less the same: olive oil, an allium or two, whatever cured pork I have on hand and when my balcony garden is not being neglected, fresh mint leaves. Kudos to the elder Miss C, for being so good at reminding me to water everything lately.
My technique for cooking it, however, is in evolution. One of the silver linings of being housebound is the time I’ve had to revisit favourite cookbooks and recipes. And after a month of experimentation and the approval of the hubby and the two Miss Cs, who have been enjoying two cooked meals a day at home with me for almost three months, I’ve come to the conclusion that this pasta dish cooks to starchy, al dente perfection by risottando la pasta, or cooking the pasta risotto-style. Essentially, this involves cooking the ditaloni directly in the skillet where the peas are sauteeing, with just enough well-salted boiling water in another pot on the stovetop to ladle in when need be. Apparently this is very commonly done with several pasta dishes in the southern port city of Naples, including this one.
What’s the advantage of cooking everything in one skillet I hear you say? Well, when you cook pasta with what food historians Oretta Zanini de Vita and Maureen B Fant, authors of the cookbook Sauces and Shapes: Pasta the Italian Way, call ‘an extreme skillet method’, it slowly absorbs the fragrant sauce or condimento, while the starch released from the pasta by the constant stirring of your wooden spoon renders the sauce irresistibly creamy.
The key to getting it right is constant monitoring of the consistency of the pasta while it’s cooking, which is why Oretta and Maureen don’t always approve of the more contemporary vogue of uniting pasta and sauce in a skillet, let alone risotto-style pasta. As they point out, pasta continues to cook for at least 30 seconds after being drained. If it is tossed in the pan with the sauce or if served directly in the pan, it can continue for even longer. No self-respecting Italian wants to commit the culinary sin of pasta scotta, meaning overcooked pasta. For this reason, Oretta and Maureen, generally instruct readers in their recipes to either immediately transfer drained pasta or pasta that’s been tossed in a skillet to a heated serving bowl and top it with the sauce then.
I have two pieces of advice to avoid overcooking the pasta. Firstly, start tasting the pasta at regular intervals as the suggested cooking time approaches. For example, I use ditaloni which would normally take 9 minutes to cook. With the risotto-style method, I’ve found I need to allow about 3 more minutes till it’s perfectly al dente but I still check to taste, just in case. Secondly, as soon as the pasta has just the right amount of bite, immediately transfer the pasta to a heated serving dish. You can do this by placing your serving bowl or platter in an oven set to its lowest temperature (mine is 50 º C) for a few minutes just before serving. If an oven is not practical, simply place your serving bowl on top of your warm skillet just before use.
Ingredients (serves 4)
- 2 litres water
- 20 g coarse sea salt
- 300 g freshly podded peas (2)
- 60 mL extra virgin olive oil
- 60 g diced pancetta (guanciale or prosciutto crudo can also work)
- 1 large spring onion, minced
- 320 g ditaloni (also known as tubetti) pasta
- fine sea salt, to taste
- a handful of mint leaves, washed and dried
- freshly ground black pepper, to serve
- freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano or Grana Padano, to serve
In a large saucepan, bring 2 litres of water to boil and add 20 g of coarse sea salt.
Meanwhile, gently heat the olive oil in a wide copper or aluminium skillet. Add the minced onion and diced pancetta and saute until the onion is softened and translucent, about 6-7 minutes. Add the peas, half a ladleful of the salted boiling water and cover, leaving to cook for 10-15 minutes (5-10 minutes if using frozen peas). Uncover the lid, raise the heat to high, add the pasta and enough salted boiling water to just cover the peas and pasta (I usually need about half a litre).
Reduce the heat to medium and cook the risotto-style pasta by adding small amounts of boiling hot water at a time, ensuring that the pasta and peas have absorbed most of the liquid before adding more. Stir constantly, using a girariso or a wooden spoon with a hole. Continue this way until the pasta feels al dente. This could happen anytime between the 9 to 13 minute cooking mark.
Taste for salt and season accordingly. You probably won’t need much if using salty pancetta. Transfer the pasta risottata to a heated serving dish, add some grated cheese, a generous grinding of black pepper and some torn mint leaves. Toss gently and serve immediately.
- You’ll need 1 kilo of peas in their pods to get a yield of 300 g of fresh peas. If using frozen peas, you’re better off using about 400 g of these.