I don’t mean to be unkind, but have you ever seen a recipe that – after perusing it for ingredients and instructions – makes you say to yourself: you’ve got to be kidding…I may as well eat boiled water! Sure, it seems easy enough to put together, but you just know that even if you use the finest of ingredients and the best of the limited technique required, at best you will dish out an utterly bland and uninspired meal.
I saw such a recipe several days ago. And I don’t mean to pick on ethereal Nigella Lawson, who is lovely and does have some very nice recipes, but she offered such a dish. It had a benign enough name – pasta with ham, peas and cream. The ingredients certainly sounded delicious enough…until you realized that the whole recipe involved cooking the pasta and peas together and then just dousing it with warmed cream that contained pieces of (equally warmed) ham in it.
The analytical side of me, which only seems to come alive when assessing food, recipes, meals and restaurants, felt the need to re-read the recipe. I MUST have missed something. But no…it was that straight-forward.
And I don’t mind straight-forward. Believe me. I’m not a cook that automatically gravitates towards the complicated and convoluted. It’s nice to be able to put something together with ease and simplicity…as long as there is some sort of payoff for this itsy-bitsy bit of trouble. But boiled peas and ham warmed through in cream feels more like being given a single yellow rose from the man of your dreams, instead of the full and luscious bouquet of red ones you were hoping for. Sooooo disappointing, yes?
I especially found it disheartening because there is probably a loving yet busy mom or dad out there – all too short on time – who sees this recipe and decides to make it for the kids because, after all, it is so easy to put together and the ingredients are wholesome. But once the kids have a taste and find it understandably unworthy of their love and excitement, they utter that categorical statement we all hear from the mouths of our babes… ‘I don’t like it.’
The tragedy is that pasta with ham, cream and peas is an Italian classic. It is the kind of dish people make when they are either short on time or haven’t had the chance to go food shopping and have to rely on what’s in their fridge, freezer and pantries. It may be simple and it may not require much, both in terms of ingredients or time, but it wouldn’t have become a homey classic, especially with finicky Italians, if it also wasn’t delicious.
And Nigella isn’t alone in bland-ifying (I love those George W.-isms…don’t you?) this poor little simple pasta dish. I looked up the recipe and found several slightly better renditions, which means they at least called for the addition of shallots. Still, they were very quick to point out that the shallots should be turned translucent before adding the cream to the skillet, but never be browned. And while that rendition at least stays truer to the classic pasta with ham, cream, and peas that I know and love, I still have to say…
Why bloody not brown the shallots? And why not brown the ham while we’re at it? Why not have those little pieces of crusty deliciousness, called fond, that regale the bottom of our skillet after we’ve browned the shallots and ham contribute its savoriness to the pasta sauce?
It certainly is worth the additional few minutes of cooking time, flavor-wise.
That’s my story and I’m sticking to it, anyway.
making ham, cream & peas pasta
Bring a large pot of water to a boil.
Mince 3 shallots.
Start by removing the skin and then carefully cutting it, from one end to the other, across the middle. Then slice perpendicularly, to create little strips. Finally, mince by cutting the little strips perpendicularly again. This type of paragraph explains why ‘a picture is worth a thousand words,’ yes?
Cut 6 oz. of maple honey ham slices into strips. I sometimes cut the border of the ham off, depending on how thick it is. I don’t go crazy and remove every little bit of it, but just enough. I do so because I don’t want the ham to be too chewy in the finished sauce.
Then cut the strips perpendicularly to create ½-inch rectangles.
Heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil on medium heat in a shallow skillet. When the oil begins to swirl on the surface, add the minced shallots and a pinch of salt.
Cook for 3 minutes, until they look golden brown.
Now add the diced ham slices. Raise the heat to medium-high and cook for 5 minutes, stirring once or twice, until the ham is browned.
Add ¾ cup of heavy cream, ¼ teaspoon freshly-grated nutmeg, and a good crack of black pepper.
Taste for seasoning and add salt if needed. Bring to a gentle simmer. Allow to simmer for 3 minutes and then take skillet off the heat.
Meanwhile, add 3/4 lb. of short pasta, like penne or fusilli, and a good handful of Kosher salt to the boiling water and cook according to package instructions. When the pasta is 5 minutes from being fully cooked, add 1 ½ cup of frozen peas. Right before draining the pasta, reserve 3 tablespoons of the pasta cooking water.
Drain the pasta and peas well.
Return to the pot and add the reserved pasta cooking water. Top with the cream and ham mixture. Mix well to ensure the pasta is evenly coated with the sauce. Divvy out the pasta into bowls and top with grated Parmigiano-Reggiano. Makes 4 servings.