Pasta with Peas, Ham and Cream
Oh, comfort food! Is there anything more befitting that name than pasta in a creamy, cheesy sauce?
Admit it. When you were little and your parents let you choose your birthday meal, you always chose Kraft Macaroni & Cheese, didn’t you? No? Well my siblings and I – deprived as we were by our pseudo-European parents of normal childhood junk food – would every year without fail choose macaroni and cheese from the box.
Wouldn’t you rather have some nice homemade mac and cheese? my poor father would beg while my mother, terrified that the Yellow 5 and Yellow 6 listed in the ingredients would surely reduce her only son’s sperm count, tried to think of ways (bribes) to change our minds.
All in vain. Not only because we loved Mac & Cheese with a passion that makes Francesco’s love of steak seem pale in comparison, but because the two of us not celebrating a birthday would gang up on the celebrant about a week before the big day with gift wrapped threats of violence and/or stuffed animal dismemberment should someone decide to have anything other than Kraft Macaroni & Cheese.
By now, our tastes have “matured” a little. My brother still inevitably chooses macaroni and cheese for his birthday but has long forgone the blue box for homemade. And I’m pretty sure my sister would still list macaroni and cheese in her top 10. But I have abandoned mac and cheese altogether in favor of this:
I know, it’s hardly the grown up version of macaroni and cheese, which recently had its heyday in Boston restaurants and I often consider a sad fate for otherwise perfectly good cheese. But this pasta, with its burst of fresh peas and salty ham enveloped in the simplest cream sauce, I love it with the same childhood abandon. Like maccheroni con salsiccia and my mom’s epic lasagna, it’s not fancy and it’s not supposed to be. It’s comforting, pure and simple.
Until last week, however, I never, ever made it at home. Why? Because my Italian husband with all his weird ideas about modern technology (we don’t own a microwave) thinks that all frozen foods that are not meant to be eaten frozen are necessarily damaged, wrong, and contrary to the laws of nature. This excludes from the shopping list the glorious frozen pea, arguably my favorite vegetable.
You’re probably thinking, don’t you mean the pea is your favorite vegetable? You’d be right, but, thing is, I’d never had a freshly shucked pea until making this pasta the other night. When I saw them at the farmers market last weekend, my first thought wasn’t, “Oooh how I love doing unnecessary things in the kitchen! Forget those extremely convenient frozen peas! I’d love to spend hours shucking the fresh kind!” Francesco, however, immediately seized the occasion to prove to me how immeasurably inferior frozen peas are compared to fresh. He even agreed to shuck the damn peas! So I agreed to buy the (what I considered very overpriced considering we would be doing the shucking) peas if only because I would finally be able to have my favorite pasta.
We bought a chunk of exquisite ham hock from a local butcher and invited a few friends over for an impromptu Sunday dinner. I found myself with a little extra time on my hands (apparently shucking fresh peas doesn’t take long at all. Wait, what? Did you actually think Francesco would shuck the peas?! Ha!) so I decided to whip up some fresh egg pasta dotted with black pepper. Followed by a gorgeous cheese plate with warm bread, salad with croutons and my favorite vinaigrette, and some chocolate cake, it made the perfect meal.
Comfort food. A little grown up.
PASTA WITH PEAS, HAM AND CREAM
Though frozen peas are totally acceptable, fresh peas really do elevate this weeknight dish. Use dried fettucce, fettucine or pappardelle, or make your own egg pasta. Serves 4 and takes about 20 minutes start to finish.
1 lb (500 grams / 1 box) dried flat, long pasta (such as fettuccine)
1 big knob of butter
1 onion, finely chopped
1 cup fresh or frozen peas
1 fist-sized chunk of ham, diced
3/4 – 1 cup heavy cream
1 cup parmigiano, grated
salt and pepper to taste
Set a pot of water over high heat to boil for the pasta. When water boils, add ample salt and cook the pasta until just al dente (about 2 minutes less than the time on the box). If you’re using fresh pasta, cook for 2-3 minutes, taste testing as you go.
Meanwhile, in a wide-bottomed pot, melt the butter over medium-low heat then add the onion. Cook, stirring every so often, for 5 minutes or so, until the onion is translucent. Add the ham and turn up the heat a little bit. If things are starting to stick, slightly lower the heat and add some more butter or olive oil. When the pasta is almost ready, add the peas (you don’t want to overcook them and turn them to mush) and the cream. Add a lot of freshly ground black pepper. Stir, and keep cooking on medium-low. The sauce will thicken up a bit. Turn off the heat when the sauce reaches your desired consistency (it should take a couple minutes).
Using tongs, remove cooked pasta from the water, jiggle it a bit to get rid of excess water, and put it directly into the pot with the cream sauce. Add half the parmigiano and stir the pasta, cheese and sauce together over low heat for a minute.
Serve pasta in four individual bowls with the remaining parmigiano on top.