This is one of my all-time favorite dishes from Northern Italy, but I have never cooked it before now.
Which is sort of weird, but when I first had it, back when I lived in Providence, Rhode Island, I didn’t have to make it. I could just walk into any number of little restaurants up on Federal Hill and order it, and it was always good. Some versions were better than others, yes, but all of them were good, and some of them were great. But good, better or great, this lovely dish was so common and so moderately priced–I just never got around to making it.
Until Zak reminded me of it, today.
And then, I had to have it.
This lovely to look at pink, green and cream dish is just the sort of heavenly food that I like to think that the angels painted by Raphael and Donatello eat when they are not posing for portraits. It is just that heavenly–it somehow manages to taste both rich and light at the same time. It is the kitchen magician’s art which makes it so, I suspect.
I didn’t bother consulting a recipe or anything. It is pretty much a cream-based pasta sauce that has onions, a bit of garlic, prosciutto, and peas cooked in butter, with or without some wine. The cream is reduced until it coats the back of a spoon, and then some delicious Parmigiano-Reggiano is grated into it, and that is it. Oh, some herbs might go in it, some black pepper, or a few chili flakes, but really, this is all there is to it.
It is beyond simple, which is good, but it also means that you have to use the best ingredients you can find and afford to make it.
Now, a true purist would say that if I am going to use the real Parma prosciutto and Parmigiano-Reggiano, I should only use fresh, just picked baby peas in season, too.
Well, I have had some rather crappy fresh peas, and many really good frozen ones, and frankly, I know for a fact that those restaurants in Providence used frozen peas, so that is what I used, too. So long as you choose the smallest, youngest frozen peas you can, and don’t overcook them, the dish will be delicious.
The only other ingredient of note for this dish is the cream.
I was privileged to be able to use fresh, raw cream this time around, although it was in a form which I have never seen before, and likely won’t see again.
It was essentially cream which had most of the water removed from it; Victoria, one of the owners and operators of Snowville Creamery, had called us last Saturday to ask if we were going to be at the farmer’s market–which we weren’t, as Kat was sick with the croup. When Zak told her why not, she said she would come by and bring us something–apparently the cream separator had gotten a bit fractious and had over-spun the milk, producing cream that was somewhere between fluid cream and butter.
She left it on our porch in a cooler.
When I got up and tasted it–it had the flavor of liquid cream, but had the texture of whipped butter. It was rich and delicious–so good that we spread some on toast made from fresh bread from the Village Bakery down the hill and topped it with strawberry preserves for an amazing breakfast.
I ended up using a good amount of it in this pasta sauce, and was thrilled to discover that it is basically pre-reduced cream. I could just plop a couple scoops of it into the pan with the other ingredients, stir it until it melts and then add the cheese and the pasta and it was done. No simmering to reduce.
I’m of the opinion that if I could have a small tub of that in the fridge at all times, it would certainly make saucemaking simpler. Maybe they have a future with the product, if not for home use, for the restaurant industry.
In the end, this pasta is an easy, delicious dish for a quick supper, especially if paired with a simple green salad. The sugar of the peas brings out the inherent sweetness in the prosciutto, while the dry cured ham’s saltiness seasons the dish perfectly. Caramelized onions deepen the flavors, a bit of sherry or dry white wine adds a bit of complexity, and the cheese gives a hint of hazel and pine nut flavor to the finished dish. The cream binds everything together in a smooth finish, while the herbs and pepper add tiny aromatic sparks to the whole.
And it looks pretty, too–the green peas contrast perfectly with the pink prosciutto; giving the dish a spring-like freshness that is hard to resist.
While fettuccine is traditional, I like to use campanelle–the bellflower shaped pasta for two reasons. One, I like the way that the fluted, floriferous tubes look in the bowl and two, those pretty ruffles catch the rich sauce and trap the peas and bits of prosciutto perfectly, making the sauce much easier to eat than it is when made with fettuccine.
Besides, campanelle is fun to say, and the romantic flowered shape keeps it well within my imagining of it being the perfect angelic meal.
If you wanted to make a vegetarian version of this, I suggest substituting some flavorful mushrooms for the prosciutto, like dried rehydrated porcini or shiitake. Soak the mushrooms in the wine you want to use to deglaze the pan, and then when you go to cut them up, squeeze the excess liquid back into the bowl and cut the mushrooms into thin slices. The reserved soaking liquid you can either filter through a coffee filter to remove any dirt or sediment or you can just pour right from the bowl it is in, being certain to leave the last bits of the liquid, with the bits of grit and grunge, in the bowl.
Pasta With Prosciutto, Peas And Parmigiano
1 tablespoon butter
1 cup finely diced onion
freshly grated black pepper to taste
1/2 teaspoon Aleppo pepper (optional)
1/4 pound thinly sliced prosciutto, cut into 1/2″ squares
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves, plus extra for garnish
1/2 cup dry sherry or dry white wine
1 1/2 cups frozen peas, at least halfway thawed
1 1/4 cup heavy cream
1 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-reggiano, plus extra for garnish if you desire
salt to taste
1 pound cooked pasta of your choice, though in my opinion, campanelle is best
Heat butter in a heavy bottomed, deep skillet or pan on medium heat until it melts and foams. Add onions, and cook, stirring, until they turn translucent gold. add black and Aleppo pepper and prosciutto, and cook, stirring for two minutes, until prosciutto loses its raw look, and onions darken to a deeper shade of gold. Add garlic and thyme leaves and cook for two minutes more.
Deglaze the pan with the wine, and after the alcohol boils off, add the peas. Cook for another minute, then add cream, and stirring, reduce the cream until the sauce coats the back of a spoon. Add half the cheese, stir in and taste for salt. Correct seasoning, then add hot, drained pasta to pan, along with the remaining cheese and stir to combine.
Garnish each serving with a sprinkling of grated cheese and some thyme leaves.
Serves four to six people, depending on appetites.
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