One of the great pleasures of being on my own, which I have been for the last ten days or so, is that I can eat whatever I want whenever I want to. Right now what I want to eat is peas, fresh green peas, straight from the gardens of local farmers.
People who have families or partners to please have to eat peas with chicken, or peas with fish, or peas with brown rice and tofu. I get to eat peas all by themselves, as much as I want.
Today I bought a kilo of peas from the local farm ladies in Camucia and brought them home. I thought about risotto, I thought about pea soup, I thought about the osso buco I’d also bought and how good that would be with fresh peas on the side. I thought about all of that and then I remembered Nika Hazelton.
Nika died many years ago but she was a good friend despite her rigorously conservative politics. She was also a fine food writer with many books to her credit, including The Regional Italian Kitchen, published back in 1978 and now almost lost to cookbook history. Unlikely as it sounds she also wrote a food column for William F. Buckley’s right-wing rag National Review. Nika and I quarreled over politics but agreed about food and especially the wonderful food of Italy where Nika was born and spent many years of her adult life in a house near Cortona.
But why do peas remind me of Nika? One story of hers that I remember with particular glee was one she wrote about a dinner party at which she served nothing but asparagus. “One can never have too much asparagus,” she said with the same dogmatic conviction that she had brought to Buckley’s 1965 run for mayor of New York. And so, she served asparagus soup, followed by asparagus risotto, followed by a massive pile of asparagus—there must have been six or eight pounds of the green stalks piled on a big tray on the sideboard of her Riverside Drive apartment.
And so I came to peas. Why not just have peas, plain peas, for dinner? I thought as I looked at the mound of green pods. And I did. I cooked them in a manner I’ve always called piselli alla romana, since I first had them like this when I lived in Rome many years ago—and when the peas we bought in the Piazza della Pace market had been harvested, like the peas I bought in Cortona yesterday, that very morning before the dew had quite dried, and brought to market by the gardener herself. Those are the very best kind of peas and there really isn’t much point in eating any other kind. You must grow them yourself or buy directly from the person who grew them. Peas in a supermarket produce bin are likely to have been harvested many days, if not weeks, ago, and their sweetness will have converted to unappetizing starch.
Here’s how I cooked them, and you can call it alla romana if you wish though I should note that peas are prepared like this all over Italy. For 2 pounds of peas in their pods, you will need 3 tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil, a smallish yellow onion chopped fine, a slice of prosciutto (or pancetta or guanciale—but not too much fat on the slice) chopped fine to make a couple of tablespoons, and the usual salt, pepper, and if you wish, a tablespoon of finely minced mint leaves to add at the very end.
First of course you have to shuck the peas, give them a quick rinse, and set them aside.
Put the oil, the chopped onion and the prosciutto in a medium saucepan and set over medium-low heat. Cook until the onion bits are starting to soften and the prosciutto is giving off its fat. Then stir in all the peas and give them a good turn or two to make sure they are well coated with the fat, and the onion and pork bits are distributed throughout. Now add a quarter-cup or so of hot water, a good pinch of salt, and several turns of black pepper. Bring to a simmer over low heat, cover tightly and cook for about 15 or 20 minutes, until the peas are tender. You might have to add a bit more water from time to time but the peas should never be swimming, just sort of lounging in their fatty, salty, delicious liquid.
When the peas are done, turn them out in a bowl and garnish with the minced mint if you wish. Serve immediately while they’re still hot.
Reader, I ate every one!