Friday, May 30, 2008

Perplexed: Cream Peas with Pancetta

I found myself in an interestingly conflicted situation today. I, a life long, devout, card-carrying pea hater, found myself standing in front of the cart at my grocery store that held local fresh English peas in the pod, dropping handfuls of them into a brown paper sack. No doubt you ask yourself what I asked myself: "Why is a pea hater buying peas? Isn't that kind of...stupid?" It wasn’t unlike my experience with the Braised Carrots with Crisp Capers. At some point in the recent past an idea had been planted in my brain and (no pun intended) the sprout had now emerged and here I was, stuffing peas in a sack like an amateur jewel thief.

I can even pinpoint the event that triggered this: last week my friendly local produce lady Shannon (the one who gives me beautiful specimens of newly arrived heirloom tomatoes, and other treats) offered me a few peas fresh out of the shell. She remarked that one customer had told her they were amazing when sautéed with pancetta and served over pasta. That was the start.

This week when I went back, Shannon wasn’t there, but the peas were. And something about them took hold of me; their little voices whispering, “Pancetta, pancetta, pancetta.” It was just too much. I know now how Odysseus felt when trying to escape the lure of the Siren’s song. I had no crew to lash me to my mast, however. I brought them home and decided that they were lunch.

Shelling peas is a very cathartic, soothing kind of chore. After all, it’s the activity of Aunt Bea-like characters in rocking chairs on front porches, bowl on lap, calling greetings to the strolling neighbors as they wend their way down Maple Avenue. It smacks of small town middle America at the height of summer. As you’re doing it, you keep expecting to hear screen doors slam, and the tinkling of the bells as the Good Humor truck rolls up.

It’s an exercise that’s repetitive, but not mind-numbingly so. There’s enough variation in the way each pea pod opens, in the actual contents, in the ease with which the peas pop from their tether inside the pod to make it even mildly diverting in a micro kind of way. I’m not saying I’d want to make a career of it, but for fifteen minutes or half an hour now and again, it’s a nice break from the buzz.

Once I had my little pile of peas (somewhere between ¾ and one cup), I set to work with pancetta and cream. I crisped up the pancetta in a little butter (some lily gilding now and then never hurts anyone), and sautéed the peas until they were just starting to color. Then I poured a third of a cup of heavy cream over them and let it cook down, down, down into a thick ivory colored sauce.

I scattered the crisp pancetta over the top, and consumed the whole bowl in half the time it had taken me to shell the peas in the first place. Perhaps that’s the way to measure how many peas you need: for a serving for one person, shell peas for 15 minutes; for two people, shell for half an hour. Be sure you have all the accessories: bowl for the peas, paper sack for the empty pods, one rocking chair, one wide front porch, strolling neighbors, banging screen doors. If it’s not possible for you to acquire all of those things, then maybe just the bowl and sack, and a willingness to imagine, will do. As I’ve proven, you don’t even have to like peas very much. But when you finish, you'll be hooked.

Cream Peas with Pancetta
serves one and only one

¾ - 1 cup of shelled peas (from ¾ of a pound of peas in the pod)
1 teaspoon butter
3 slices pancetta
1/3 cup heavy cream

Melt butter in a skillet over medium heat. Add pancetta and cook until crisp and fat is rendered. Remove pancetta from the pan and reserve. Add shelled peas and sauté until the peas are just starting to color, about 8 minutes. Add cream, and cook until reduced down by two-thirds, another 5 or so minutes. The cream should be thick enough to coat the back of a spoon. Then give it another minute after that. Season with a timid grind of black pepper; any more than that will overpower the delicate flavors of the peas and sauce. And mercy, don’t add any salt! Pancetta is salty enough. There’s no need to add any at all.

Serve with reserve pancetta crumbled over the top. This recipe could probably be doubled, possibly even quadrupled. You might have to fiddle with the ratio of cream to peas; start out adding a little, maybe a cup or so, then add more if you need it. Otherwise the peas might turn to mush before you could reduce the cream sufficiently. You want the peas to still have a little crunch to them; better to sacrifice a little sauce than have mushy peas.

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