Peas & Pancetta

There’s good stuff to eat in Italy – that’s a fact. It’s also a fact that I have a hard time controlling myself when I’m faced with a nice Farmer’s Market (or the well stocked produce department inside a supermarket for that matter) and the immediate means of cooking the ingredients; in this particular case a beautiful Tuscan vacation home in the hills of the Garfagnana with ample access to everything good: wine, cheese, cured (and not so cured) meats, fish, veggies and fruits and veggies and fruits and veggies and fruits….and did I mention the fantastic wine yet? Having access to a kitchen and a BBQ on your vacation lowers the level of frustration (as in: how many peaches can I possibly consume right here, right now??) considerably. I love shopping in foreign grocery stores, it’s a tourist attraction for me and my family knows to tolerate me, because they know there will be light at the end of the tunnel, figuratively speaking. It’s a pity, really, that a person can only eat so much watermelon in one sitting and even though we practically plowed our way through giant tubs of green and black olives and caper berries, we had to give up and take the rest home – they had to share precious real estate in the trunk of our car with the wine, gigantic hunks of parmigiano, pecorino, pancetta, the pool toys, the Smokey Joe (we’re so equipped) and the suitcases that actually contained clothes, not food…

Time flows different when on vacation: it’s a curious thing, each day seems to contain more hours than it usually does, and at the same time two weeks (which sound like a long time when you unpack your bags the day you arrive) race past at warp speed. There is time to sleep late and have a nice breakfast; go to the pool and still it’s only lunch, more time to do nothing in particular in and go for a run, maybe; time for dinner, but no hurry to get there and definitively time for “aperitivo”, a word (more a concept, really) that our kids learned hot on the heels of “gelato” and “grazie”…The idea to sit with a glass of wine and snack your way through some cheese and olives while enjoying the scenery or people watching comes naturally, it seems, and deserves a spot on the everyday menu of life.
Now we’re back home, school has started and although the weather is still pretty nice, it’s not Tuscany anymore and along with that, unfortunately, came the reality check: life is busy again, the day does not contain more than 24 hours, eight of which I’d love to spend asleep…and a question: how do they do it in Italy? It’s not tourists on vacation in (all) the caf├ęs we visited, it’s regular people with just as busy lives as ours are and still they manage time for a glass of wine and a snack…

I’m working on the issue – until then I cook Tuscan food with what’s available here fresh right now – September in Denmark isn’t September in Tuscany after all, and there’s nice fresh peas to be had at the moment. Peas are a cool weather crop and are available where I live from May all through summer – it doesn’t get that warm here, usually. The Danes are crazy about fresh peas, especially the first ones; they snack on them like other people would on candy – kids get them in their lunch boxes to school, pod and all. In Tuscany this would be a spring dish, but it’s just as good with late summer peas from Denmark, I’m sure. The pancetta makes a difference in this dish, though: it’s cured only, not smoked and it’s melt in your mouth tender more than crunchy, which is what you get out of using bacon instead, plus the smokey flavor – but it’s the peas that are essential here. While frozen peas are usually a good alternative, in this case you’ll want the fresh ones, they’re the star of the dish, let them shine. The fresh, green, sweet flavor of a fresh pea is something that cannot be preserved by freezing, regrettably.

Shelling peas can be a bit time consuming – no two ways about it. If you have kids, make them help, although I must admit that a good amount of peas disappear this way; I only let my kids help when I know I have more peas than the ones we want for dinner…and who’s to say you can’t have aperitivo while shelling peas?

Note: Fresh peas have a half life of no time flat – plan to cook them the day you bought them. If that’s not possible, keep them in the coldest spot in your fridge, to slow down the conversion from sugar to starch as much as possible – starch is good when you’re a potato, not a pea.

Peas & Pancetta 

serves 4 as a side dish

1 kg pea pods
5 cloves of garlic
2 tblsp olive oil
salt and pepper
100 g pancetta, thinly sliced
1 tblsp olive oil

1) Shell the peas. The mountain of pods will give you about 300 g (2 cups) of peas.

2) Peel the garlic and cut big cloves in half.

3) Put peas, garlic, 2 tblsp olive oil, some salt and several good grinds of pepper in a small sauce pan an barely cover with water. Careful with the salt, the pancetta you’ll add later might be pretty salty. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat and simmer for 15 minutes. Don’t cover the pot, the water is supposed to reduce along the way.

4)  Slice the pancetta into thin strips and heat the remaining 1 tblsp olive oil in a pan. Fry the pancetta until it’s crispy and be careful not to burn the fat, since both the pancetta and the rendered fat are going into the pea pot to work their magic there.

5) Pour the pancetta and the fat into the peas and cook for 15 min more, to meld the flavors together. Taste and add more salt if neccessary and almost certainly more pepper.

Note: In case you don’t feel like sharing, the peas go well with crusty bread to soak up the cooking liquid or some soft polenta and a glass of dry Rosato. In all other cases, they go well with roasted meats as a side dish.

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