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Today I’m hoping for spring. The newscaster on the radio yesterday said that by this point in this crazy winter, we’ve shovelled more than 100cm of snow. And this weekend the big melt is on. There’s a puddle the size of an Olympic swimming pool at the end of my driveway, we nearly lost the dog in it.
While I don’t trust that winter is over, the water tells me spring is on the way and that means sunshine, more time outdoors and fresh spring vegetables. The best of those is peas, and while I prefer them raw, sweet and small right out of the pod, they are a great addition to meals as well, like in pasta piselli in bianco (pasta with peas in a “white” sauce).
When I was a kid, I could make myself sick on raw peas. Early on a Saturday morning, my mom and grandparents would disappear for a few hours and come back with bushels of peas in their bright green pods. We would sit in the shade of the front porch, metal bowls in our laps, shellling the pods one by one and listening to the peas hit the bowl with a satisfying “ping, ping, ping.” At first I would be excited to help: I was usually eating more raw peas than were making it into the bowl. But an hour into it, the conversation waned, my stomach was full and my fingernails were lined with green. I would squirm in my seat, hoping to be excused. No such luck – this was a family affair, through and through. When we were finally done, we would freeze the peas and have them for the whole year – there was nothing better.
These days, I go to a nearby farm where they do the shelling for you and flash freeze the sweet peas. A few weeks ago, I shared a pasta piselli recipe that was traditional to my family, using tomato sauce. Now, here’s another common recipe also employed by parents and grandparents as a quick dish that kids generally love: pasta piselli in bianco. “In bianco” means “in white”, or in a white sauce, without tomatoes. While you can use frozen peas, fresh peas are always the best. The recipe is quick, easy and fresh: to be served in the bright sunshine of spring.
Pasta Piselli in Bianco
200g mini shell dry pasta (100g per person)
1 cup peas, fresh or frozen
1 medium onion, chopped
50g pancetta (or bacon. Use however much you have around.)
Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, grated
Years back, we took a family trip to Italy for over a month. We basked in the sun, visited relatives, ate to our hearts content and struck out on road trips every so often.
Our relatives were amused that we recognized and knew all their foods and favourite meals. After travelling it was great to have some comfort food too. There’s something about being away from home that heightens our taste buds. Their patate fritte, though just like my Nonno’s, tasted fresher and more vibrant. Why? Who knows, but I still remember it well.
Well into our trip, we travelled from my mom’s small hometown to a nearby city to do some shopping. As the afternoon closure of shops approached, we grabbed some quick street food for our ride back. Among the typical southern Italian quick eats, like arancini, were crocchette di patate (potato croquettes). Have I mentioned I love potatoes? But these I have never tried before! I scarfed down two in record time. They were so good and I was so ticked off. I was convinced my mom had withheld this recipe, this glorious form of potato, from our regular Italian meals.
This food memory stayed with me for years and a few times I’ve tried to make great crocchette just like I remember them. My husband’s family makes a lightly pan-fried version of this, stuffing the middle with a chunk of mozzarella. Having something hidden in the middle is always a nice surprise, but I just love the potatoes, so I tried out this recipe until I found a mix that I loved. Crunchy on the outside, creamy and rich on the inside, these crocchette are great as a side dish or a snack.
Crocchette di patate
3 medium potatoes
1/4 cup Parmiggiano Reggiano (grated)
1/4 cup mozzarella (shredded)
1/8 cup chopped parsley
1 tablespoon cool water
salt and pepper to taste
1 1/4 cup breadcrumbs
canola or vegetable oil for frying
In my memories, I often see my mom’s parents (who lived next door) in a low blue light. They always waited until the last minute of daylight to reach for the light switch, letting the long shadows of afternoons find their way into their kitchen. Their basement kitchen, where everything was coloured brown, relied on two small windows near the ceiling to let in the sun. Late afternoon to dusk was when I was called over for dinner and so the coolness of the darkened rooms during summer was an escape. But when company came over at night, the blazing yellow bulbs in the kitchen light fixture coloured everything with warmth.
When I remembered by grandparents making this frittata di spaghetti, my mind didn’t see the bright lights on over their stove like I have now in my attempts to get every dish they used to make for me right. I saw refreshing afternoon darkness and my Nonna giving the frittata its’ sweet time in the frying pan while my grandparents talked or read at the kitchen table. My Nonno used to affectionately call this frittata “spaghetti pie.” The name was ridiculous coming from him, but that was part of the charm of the dish. With its’ silly English name, I always thought he had come up with some new way I would like pasta that was more Canadian than Italian. Not so – this is really just a classic frittata with just a different ingredient inside.
If you search the internet for “spaghetti pie” (and I don’t recommend that you do) you get a lot of baked, gooey, overdone dishes that don’t appeal to me at all. The joy of this dish is in its’ crunchy exterior, the appreciation for the time needed to get it crunchy and the ability to share it easily and eat it by hand if you want. Made with leftover pasta most of the time, it’s another example of making sure nothing goes to waste. Best of all, it’s an easy dish to throw together that tastes good cold as well, so Nonno would pack it up in foil, a slice each, for picnics and fishing trips. How else can you eat pasta lakeside while waiting for your dinner to take the bait?
Frittata di Spaghetti
200g dry pasta / 400g cooked pasta (al dente)
3 large eggs
1 cup mozzerella, shredded
1/4 cup Parmiggiano Reggiano, grated
salt and pepper to taste
It’s the simplest recipes that sometimes hold the dearest spot in an Italian kid’s heart. Pasta piselli is a classic, simple dish that just about every Nonna serves up to grandkids for lunch or dinner, particularly for picky eaters. It’s hard to get little feet to stop running around long enough to get some food in them. From my memory, the conversation with Nonna goes something like this:
“What do you want to eat?”
“Do you want pasta?”
“Do you want pasta piselli?”
There are two versions of pasta piselli – with sauce and without – but we’ll start with the one my Nonna made. Adding peas to a regular pasta dish does something: it adds a pop of unexpected sweetness and, I image, is a great way to get vegetables into a little one. When you grow up, pasta piselli is a simple pleasure, an easy home cooking twist that infuses an ordinary dish with a little history and love (yes, all that from a few peas!). Don’t believe me? Try it for yourself.
200 gr of pasta (100 grams per person)
1 cup fresh or frozen peas