As spring leaps like a superhero into view, no doubt bursting with sunshine and, I fervently hope, one of those unexpected mini heatwaves that will allow me to sit in the garden, glass in hand, I thought that a recipe which brings a bit of Italian warmth to meet England’s green and pleasant peas at the dinner table might be nice. As a bonus, it requires ingredients that there is a good chance you have in your cupboard, fridge and quite possibly garden.
If frozen peas aren’t a fixture of every freezer in the land, I don’t know what will be, and this recipe makes them into something a little more unusual and, dare I suggest it, delicious than being the mere sidekick to bangers and mash or roast lamb. These little emeralds are packed with goodness, taste sweet and look gorgeous! What’s not to like?
Parmesan is always in my fridge, but if you don’t have any you can use other cheeses. Feta works beautifully with its salty tang, as does the lactic liveliness of Lancashire, Cheshire, Wensleydale. And hard sheep cheeses like Manchego or Berkswell will do the business too. Cheddar and the like are less successful but you could experiment with them. As for the oil, a good, nutty rapeseed could stand in for the olive oil if that’s your bag, though the sweet green flavours and colours are a little less vibrant. As for the mint, I know that mint sauce from a jar doesn’t have the vividly fresh flavour and scent of the plucked leaf, but if you haven’t been able to lay your hands on the leaves or don’t have a pot in the garden, then a jar will do, as the ingredients list explains below. Also, basil can substitute for mint, and parsley too with a touch of that mint from a jar.
As for the pasta, the pesto works with most types, though spaghetti or linguini are good. Pasta shapes will catch the sauce very satisfyingly too, depending on how chunky or smooth you’ve made it and the shape you have. I am assuming that some of you have pasta, though it was a scarcity for a moment there! If you’re not a pasta fan, the pesto also makes a delicious bruschetta topping spread thickly over slices of toasted or, even better griddled, crusty bread.
- 300g frozen peas (fresh peas podded will work too, when in season)
- 1 garlic clove, finely chopped or minced (optional)
- 75g pine nuts or roughly chopped almonds, toasted (you could use toasted hazelnuts for a stronger nut flavour)
- 60g fresh Parmesan, grated (if you don't have Parmesan you can use pecorino or even feta for a tangy change, or mix them up)
- A good handful fresh mint leaves (or basil, or parsley). If you don't have fresh mint use 2 tsp mint sauce from a jar without vinegar added
- 6 tbsp extra virgin olive oil (this is flexible; see how the mixture looks to you)
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 400g dried spaghetti or any pasta you like
- Juice of ¼ of a lemon
- Extra virgin olive oil (use the best you have for dressing the dish, it really pays off)
- Boil water in a large pan for the pasta, adding an unstinting pinch of salt.
- In another saucepan bring unsalted water to boil, add the frozen peas and cook for 3 or 4 minutes until the peas are warmed through. Pour into a colander so that they drain well. If you are not making the pesto immediately at this point, tip them into cold water to stop them cooking and to help set the colour to vibrant green but bring them to room temperature before the next stage.
- Put the peas into a food processor and add the garlic (if using), pine nuts or almonds, Parmesan/Pecorino or Feta, mint and olive oil. Taste and then season if needed with salt and freshly ground black pepper but be careful as the cheese is salty. Pulse the blender to break down the mixture, a bit of texture is good, but the smoothness level is up to you. Once it is blended to your taste tip into a large bowl, squeeze in the lemon juice and stir well.
- In the large pan of salted boiling water cook your chosen pasta until al dente and drain, keeping back a tablespoon or so of the cooking water. Tip the steaming pasta and the reserved cooking water into the pesto mixture and toss well, before piling into warmed bowls. Serve at once with the extra cheese of choice and the olive oil for dressing at the table.
- If you find you have more pesto than you need it will freeze very well after you've pulsed it and before adding lemon juice.
Of course you may not have a fully replenished wine rack right now, so make the most of what you have. But as a rule a properly fresh and fruity white would be perfect for this dish to chime with the fresh flavours, toasty nuts and salty cheese. The Society's Pinot Grigio or The Society's Falanghina would be ideal, with fruit to marry with the sweetness of the peas, and freshness for the cheese and herb element. They'd also be an appropriate hommage to the Italian roots of this dish. Another Italian gem worth trying is Pecorino d'Abruzzo with its stone-fruit flavour and zing.
Off-dry riesling is a lovely match too. Consider The Society's Saar Riesling or Chateau Ste Michelle Columbia Valley Riesling, and sauvignon blanc will be a delight with this too, particularly if you have incorporated the Feta. Crack open a bottle of Rata Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, Bordeaux's Dourthe No 1 Sauvignon Blanc, Bordeaux or Touraine Sauvignon Blanc, Domaine de la Renaudie from the Loire. To be honest, almost any grassy, fruity sauvignon will be your friend with this one. Finally, give the Greeks a chance too, and deploy the fragrant, vivid charms of Mitravelas 'White on Grey' Moschofilero.
If you can't countenance anything but red, look to those with freshness and fruit. Speziale Marsigliana Nera, Santa Venere is crammed with bright berry fruit and lightly chilled is utterly moreish. Saumur Rouge La Grande Réserve, Famille Bougrier and The Society's Beaujolais-Villages will both fit that brief too, being filled with fruit without losing vibrancy.