Recipe below: Penne with Peas, Ricotta, Pancetta, and Mint
I often shop for food at Westside Market, mainly because it’s two blocks from my Manhattan apartment. It’s no gourmet store, but they have decent pasta, an okay cheese department, and good produce. Their broccoli rabe and escarole is consistently crisp and deep green. I almost always throw one or the other into my cart, along with fresh herbs like basil, flat leaf parsley, or marjoram. I grab an Arthur Avenue mozzarella. Anyone spying my cart will probably guess that I’ll be cooking something Italianish.
Spying into other people’s shopping carts is a pastime of mine. It started out as a search for like-minded shoppers, with carts full of, say, cavatelli, sweet peppers, chicory, soppressata, and other obviously Italian stuff. But it slowly branched out, becoming a preoccupation that led me to observe all types of shoppers. I’ve witnessed many eccentric, disgusting, seemingly haphazard, or just hard-to-pin-down food choices over the years.
In the last two weeks I’ve zeroed in on a few interesting carts. I saw a chignoned elderly woman pick up two packages of sliced American cheese, a tub of crème fraîche, a wedge of Roquefort, a very large chunk of Swiss, an over-the-hill piece of brie, four packages of various crackers—one was Triscuits, one an Italian flatbread flavored with rosemary—chicken livers, chicken sausages with parmigian, chicken legs, chicken thighs, chicken cutlets, chicken wings. What was driving her pursuit of all this chicken and cheese? At this point I’m assuming she lives alone. Who would put up with a diet like this? And the big-bellied guy with a cart filled with bags of lemons, limes, and oranges, well, he’s, I don’t know, maybe a bartender? Then last week there was Sally Field at checkout. I thought I knew all the celebs in the neighborhood. I had no idea she was so petite. But she looks just like she did in The Flying Nun, only drier. I wish I’d seen what was in her cart. Looked like red leaf lettuce sticking out of her shopping bag, but that didn’t tell me much. What a missed opportunity.
And there’s that frozen food man again, with his polished bald head, handsome Roman profile, and weirdly long shoes. His looks are captivating, but what’s in his shopping cart interested me more. I’ve noticed that most people who buy a lot of frozen stuff are usually going for full meals, such as Amy’s Tamale Verde or Chicken Tikka Masala (I’ve never tried those, but people buy them). But my frozen food man only buys individually packaged items like frozen peas (so many people go for them), corn kernels, broccoli, and pearl onions (the only use I know for them is in boeuf bourguignon), and this week, frozen artichoke hearts (I never knew they even existed), frozen pizza dough, and frozen bake-your-own baguettes. What does this mean? I guess it means that the man is cooking, not just heating things up. But, where’s the meat? And if he’s actually preparing meals, why not buy fresh vegetables? I’m thinking since he shops so often and always buys frozen, possibly he’s a hoarder. But how can anyone keep all that stuff in a city-size freezer?
Yesterday I went to Westside Market and wandered around in a daze, with a blank head, trying to figure out what to make for dinner. I was hoping to find an Italian food shopper to inspire me (like the woman I saw a few days back with all the prosciutto and cremini mushrooms), but the only people who held my interest, and not in a positive way, were two possibly Parsons Design students, one with a half shaved head, vegans I’m assuming, dropping depressing stuff into their hand basket: two tubs of very compact looking hummus (since when is hummus bright red?), lentil veggie patties, shrink-wrapped falafel, a few bags of those gummy fish things, organic potato chips with sea salt, and packages of precut carrot sticks, beet chunks, cauliflower florets, diced onion, all looking lifeless (who the hell buys precut onion?). What a bring-down that was.
I still didn’t have a clue about dinner, but I thought about the handsome bald hoarder and decided to grab a bag of frozen peas. I hadn’t used them in a while. In February, they’re not a bad choice. And then the peas got me thinking about a pasta dish from my childhood. My mother often made penne with frozen peas, prosciutto, and cream. She called it “Northern-style,” I guess because of the cream and lack of tomatoes. So with that flavor memory in mind, I decided to do a variation on the theme. I marched through the aisles with new purpose, picking up whole milk ricotta, a chunk of pancetta, a few lemons, an onion (a whole one, with the skin on it), a bunch of nice looking mint, a wedge of so so caciocavallo, a few bottles of seltzer, a bag of penne, a Lindt almond chocolate bar, a fresh bottle of California Olive Ranch olive oil (my current favorite), and, of course, my frozen peas. I wonder if anyone was looking at my cart and thinking, what is she making for dinner?
Penne with Peas, Ricotta, Pancetta, and Mint
A heaping cup of whole milk ricotta
A drizzle of cream
About ¼ cup grated caciocavallo cheese
The grated zest from 1 small lemon
A few big gratings of nutmeg
Coarsely ground black pepper
¾ pound penne
Extra-virgin olive oil
¼ pound pancetta, cut into small cubes (buy it in one thick chunk, not slices, so you can cut in into cubes)
1 small onion, diced
A cup or so of frozen peas, thawed
A big splash of dry vermouth
½ cup chicken broth
5 large sprigs fresh mint, leaves lightly chopped
Fill a pasta pot with water, and bring it to a boil. Add a generous amount of salt.
While the water is heating, warm a pasta bowl, and add the ricotta, the drizzle of cream, the caciocavallo, lemon zest, a few generous scrapings of nutmeg, a good amount of coarsely ground black pepper, and a little salt. Give it all a mix.
Drop the penne into the water.
In a large sauté pan, heat about a tablespoon of olive oil over medium heat. Add the pancetta, and sauté until crisp. Add the onion, and let it soften, about 2 minutes. Add the peas, and give them a stir. Add the splash of vermouth, and let it boil away. Add the chicken broth, and simmer until the peas are tender, about another 2 minutes. You should have some liquid left in the pan.
When the penne is al dente, drain it, saving about ½ cup of the cooking water.
Add the penne to the ricotta bowl. Now pour on the peas and pancetta mixture, with all its pan liquid. Add the mint and a drizzle of fresh olive oil, and give everything a toss, adding a little pasta cooking water if you need it to form a creamy sauce. Taste for seasoning, adding more salt if needed. Serve right away.
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