Some cooks make the same red-sauce spaghetti all year round, and there’s nothing wrong with that. A beloved tradition shouldn’t be abandoned for the sake of variety, and, in my estimation, perfectly cooked pasta with the right amount of tomato sauce is an uplifting experience.
One example: I remember a garden party a few years ago, where the host had come up with a brilliant, simple menu of a tray of lasagna and a giant bowl of salad — both stellar family recipes. For dessert, we had Klondike bars, straight from the freezer. It was an easygoing affair, and the lasagna delicious.
But there are some types of pasta — improvisational, perhaps — that can be expressions of a season’s beginnings. These are the pastas I prefer just now, which are, for the most part, vegetable focused.
The other day, I came upon fresh peas in the pod and the first few bunches of new garlic shoots. While West Coast cooks have been blessed with these, and many other vegetables, for several weeks already, we on the East Coast are thrilled to finally have these harbingers of spring arrive at the market, especially this year, when winter’s end has seemed more delayed than ever.
With that in mind, I set about to make pasta with peas. Normally, I would have been pleased to serve it with just a pat of butter and a bit of Parmesan, but a few other words came to mind, like pappardelle and pancetta. Then a little bunch of tender mustard greens caught my eye, so off they went into the basket, too.
Pappardelle is a great choice here: saucy juices like to cling to those wide, delicate ribbons. I could have made my own, but I was pressed for time. Thankfully, there are tasty imported dried versions sold in boxes, and fresh ones available at my local Italian deli.
Finding pancetta — Italian bacon, usually unsmoked — can be a bit more difficult, but regular smoked bacon is a fine substitute. While not essential, a few lardons of pork give pasta with peas a nice boost. Whichever I use, I often simmer it in water for a minute or two, which tones down the smokiness a bit and renders some fat. Lemon zest and a quickly made herb pesto with basil, mint and parsley could round out the pasta’s flavor, and a bit of fresh ricotta adds a creamy quality without adding richness.
Temperatures plummeted again the next day. But for our dinner, at least, spring had begun in earnest.
And to drink ...
With almost all pasta dishes, the wine is chosen to match the flavorings of the sauce. In this case, that’s a combination of creamy ricotta, sharp herbs and spring-fresh peas, with savory pancetta accents — a combination that calls for a white. The instinct with pasta is to think Italian, which offers many options, including pinot bianco from Alto Adige, vermentinos from Liguria and fianos from Campania. Just as good would be an array of French wines. I think a good white Bordeaux, made of a combination of sauvignon blanc and sémillon, would be great. Or you could stick with sauvignon blanc alone, in an herbal, minerally Sancerre. Chablis would be delicious, as would a springlike sylvaner (also spelled silvaner) from Alsace. Come to think of it, Alto Adige makes excellent sylvaner as well. ERIC ASIMOV
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