The Food Of Angels: Pasta With Prosciutto, Peas And Parmigiano

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
Ingredients:

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

Method:

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.

14 Comments

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  1. This looks yummy ! I love pasta , in any form as far as they are vegeterian :)). With peas I think it will taste heavenly.
    Thanks for sharing.
    -Pooja

    Comment by Pooja — January 15, 2008 #

  2. This looks yummy ! I love pasta , in any form as far as they are vegeterian :)). With peas I think it will taste heavenly.
    Thanks for sharing.
    -Pooja

    Comment by Pooja — January 15, 2008 #

  3. I’m with you on the pre-reduced cream – I love alfredo, with the hips to prove it, but I’m so impatient when it comes to reducing the cream and have burned the cream (and me!) more than once trying to get it. More often than not, my sauce isn’t as thick as I’d like it, but it still tastes good.

    But, y’know, this is America. If we can sell premade cheesecake filling in a tub, why can’t those of us that like putting a little bit of effort into our meals get pre-reduced cream?

    Comment by Sarah — January 15, 2008 #

  4. This idea sounded great. So I grabbed some prosciutto when I got groceries today, and restocked the cream (which I’d have done anyway). *plots a tasty pasta dinner for this week*

    Comment by Emily Cartier — January 15, 2008 #

  5. I encountered this dish in Rhode Island too and fell in love with it, eating it almost every time I passed through. It was often listed as alla carbonara on the menu, but no two places made it quite the same. I do miss it since I no longer find my way there often.

    Comment by Daniel Jenkins — January 15, 2008 #

  6. I never realized it was so simple to make. I’ll be adding this to my regular menus from now on.

    Comment by Daniel Jenkins — January 15, 2008 #

  7. I, too, love this dish, but haven’t made it in quite some time. It used to be my Wednesday-Night-The-Husband-Is-Gaming dish (because hubby doesn’t like anything with peas in it), but since he hasn’t been gaming in the last few months, I haven’t made it. I should just make it for myself sometime soon, after a long night of baking, this sounds really good.

    Sometimes I’ve made it with bacon instead of proscuitto (I always have bacon in the freezer). Many times, instead of using heavy cream, I’ll use creme freche. I’ll add it off the heat with the pasta and then just gradually bring it up to temp. This works wonderfully to help reduce the time making it (no reducing cream). If the sauce gets a bit thick, I’ll add just a little bit of half and half to it (or pasta water and a bit of milk if I don’t have half & half). I also like the slight tanginess that the creme freche gives to it.

    If I really want to gild the lily, I’ll throw in an egg yolk with the grated cheese (off heat) before tossing the pasta.

    This is supreme comfort food for me.

    Comment by Roxanne — January 16, 2008 #

  8. Would that be like double cream?

    Because Canada is more culturally British than the USA, they sell double cream in the dairy section of the local grocery store.
    I use it for making fruit salad—can I cook with it??

    Comment by wwjudith — January 16, 2008 #

  9. My sister and I can usually guess, with a look at any restaurant’s menu, what the other would order. This is pretty easy, as with very few exceptions, we always like the same thing. Any chance we have to order or make pasta with peas and prosciutto, we take. It’s my fave thing in the world, next to sweet potatoes in just about any form. I was craving that last night too but settled for a childhood favorite, tuna noodle casserole, instead. Penne is my pick for pasta w/peas & prosciutto, btw… something about sliding a fork tine into a penne appeals to me. (Hey, don’t read anything into that; it’s just a playful kid thing!)

    Comment by Hilarie — January 16, 2008 #

  10. I knew there was something I forgot to buy at the grocery store the other day – peas! I rarely buy them but had a sudden craving for them, and now I know why. Darn, because I have all of the other ingredients for the wonderful looking dish (which is in itself an amazing feat because I almost never have prosciutto in the house), including a little bit of thyme still alive in the greenhouse and cream straight from the cow down the road. Saving the recipe to del.icio.us until I remember to buy the peas. Can’t wait to make it. Sounds like perfect comfort food to me. Thanks!

    Comment by Farmgirl Susan — January 16, 2008 #

  11. Mmm… made my version of this tonight (ham substitution plus mushrooms, marjoram, scallions, and parsley). Thanks for reminding me of how great a dish it is. I craved it for days after reading. :)

    Comment by Amy (philosofialogos on LJ) — January 17, 2008 #

  12. The cream is more like double cream than clotted cream, which is made by slowly heating the milk twice. This stuff–it is the texture of thick creme fraiche, but without the culture, so it is sweet like regular cream. Great stuff.

    Susan–it is the perfect comfort food dish. I love it dearly. Amy–glad you made it. Mushrooms are a great addition.

    Speaking of mushrooms–Pooja–you could make it and sub mushrooms for the prosciutto, and it would be an awesome vegetarian version. Give it a try!

    Hilarie–I figured you were just liking to play with your food. The cool thing about the campanelle is that you can do the same thing–they are hollow tubes, just shaped differently than penne. So, you can thread them on the tines of your fork if you like.

    Comment by Barbara — January 21, 2008 #

  13. I made it for my wife earlier in the week and she loved it so much she made me make the the next night as well.

    Comment by Chad — January 21, 2008 #

  14. It is an utterly delightful and enchanting dish, isn’t it?

    Comment by Barbara — January 21, 2008 #

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