More peas please.

I always have a packet of peas in the freezer. For years they were Birds eye, then dubious buyouts, my conscience and an Italian address got the better of me and my allegiance was swapped to a small Italian brand called la via lattea. Tucked next to the ice cubes, on top of the tub of chicken stock – I’ll come to that uncharacteristically organised habit later – and squashed up against a couple of parmesan rinds which may or may not have adhered themselves to the freezer wall, this packet of peas is often the only thing in our tiny, icy, post-box-sized freezer.

My relationship with this packet of peas is much the same as the one I have with my tin of illy coffee, and very like the one I used to have with my packet of cigarettes – cue wave of guilty nostalgia. Meaning mild anxiety when I’m approaching the last few servings, proper twitchy anxiety at the thought I may run out prompting urgent trip to the shops, and great relief when a new packet is purchased and tucked away.

And what do I do with all these frozen peas you might – or might not – be asking? Well, rather too many of them are steamed back to life then mixed with rice, butter, black pepper, sometimes parmesan or a chopped hard-boiled egg, maybe some smoky fish for a rather unsophisticated but tasty and faithful solitary supper. If I’ve remembed to defrost the stock, I make Lindsey Bareham’s quick pea and mint soup, just-like-that as Tommy Cooper would say. Sometimes I feel very English and boil peas to death with fresh mint and then blast them with lots of butter into a green velvety puree for beside the roast chicken. We have them tossed with tiny farfalle pasta or rolling around beside mashed potato and fat sasauges. I could go on. As a rule I like peas at least once a week, did I mention I like peas?

But then, for about six weeks each year the packet sits patiently, and I like to think approvingly, in the freezer adhering itself to the bottom shelf, while it’s local, sweet, peak-of-season, freshly picked cousins in their smart, perky, bright green jackets, take center stage and roll around our kitchen.

Most of the first bagful is eaten raw and slightly compulsively, pods split, peas flicked from within straight into our mouths. on the way home from the market, if they’re particularly small and tender, pod and all. Vincenzo likes to eat them as Romans eat the first tiny broad beans, fave, meaning a big dish of peas in their pods is put in the middle of the table so everyone can peel their own to eat with hunks of salty, piquant, sheep’s milk cheese Pecorino Romano, sweet and salty mouthfuls, interspersed with sips and gulps of white wine. The second bagful is shelled, steamed with mint and doused with butter. The third is probably destined for frittedda and the fourth, the Venetian dish Risi e Bisi, Rice and peas.

Now before you are underwhelmed by the name, let me explain. Risi e Bisi is a quite delicious dish that I think epitomizes spring and the simple beauty of Italian food. Onion cooked in butter, some very fresh peas, homemade stock and Italian rice are simmered up into a soft, rippling, creamy mass, which is speckled with chopped flat leaf parsley and enriched with freshly grated parmesan.

Don’t be fooled or told otherwise – I was, before being corrected in no uncertain terms by a very knowledgable and bossy Venetian and Marcella Hazan – Risi e Bisi is not risotto with peas, it is a soup, albeit a very thick one, which you can eat with a fork, but the slightly runny consistency means a spoon is probably better. Its execution is similar to that of risotto, but the cooking time is slightly longer and you don’t need to stir so continuously, just the occasional nudge nudge.

My frozen pea dependency means I can make Rice and peas all year-long, but it should only – our friend, Marcella and Vincenzo are very clear about this – be called Risi e Bisi in spring, when it’s made with fresh peas, some of the empty pods which made the dish even sweeter and good homemade stock. Now this is where I could be accused of inauthenticity, Marcella and several other recipes insist on a beef stock, but I find that rather imposing and prefer a lighter chicken stock.

So this stock. Now, I am forever disappointing myself in the kitchen, full of good intentions, fancy pants plans and projects which remain, well, good intentions, fancy pants plans and projects (I never told you about most of the lemons did I!) However, I have finally got into the satisfying habit, it’s been a couple of years now, of making stock, mostly chicken, each week, half for the fridge and half for the freezer. Fergus Henderson is right, there is almost nothing as reassuring as having stock up your sleeve. I generally make it on a Monday with the carcass of the roast chicken from the weekend or chicken bones, neck and wings my butcher gives me for near to nothing. Please feel free to skip this next section if you are not bothered or in need of chicken stock advice

Fergus Henderson’s chicken stock

Onions (with skin on, chopped in half); a bulb of garlic (with skin on, chopped in half); carrots (peeled and slit lengthways); a leek (split lengthways and cleaned); celery with leaves; a bay leaf; herbs; a few peppercorns; chicken bones and wings with skin.

Cover your stock ingredients with enough water to allow for skimming (which is vital), but not so much as to drown any flavour. Bring the pan to a simmer, but not a rolling boil as this will boil the surface scum back into the stock. I shall say again SKIM. Simmer for about 2 hours. To know if the stock is ready taste and taste again. Strain the stock into a large bowl and allow to cool. Chill overnight.
Skim off any fat that has formed on the surface. Use within 3 days or freeze

What was I talking about? Ah yes, Risi e Bisi.

Once you have made your stock and podded your pea comes the tricky part, well, I say tricky it’s fiddly really, but very worth while. You take about ten of the nicest empty pods and pull away the clear inner membrane on the inside of each pod along with any stringy bits – I’ve explained it better below. You are going to add this sweet green flesh to the pan, it will sweeten and add flavour to proceedings and then dissolve. It is – my friend tells me – the secret of this dish. Now it’s all very straightforward, the chopped onion is sautéed in butter to which you add the peas, prepared pods and most of the stock and simmer for 10 minutes. You add the rice, the end of the stock and simmer covered for another 20 minutes with the occasional stir and nudge. Finish with parsley and freshly grated parmesan. Serve with more Parmesan.

The juxtaposition of sweet peas, starchy grains and the deeply savory parmesan, the contrast of textures, the absolute goodness and simplicity of it all, the fact we can only have it for a few weeks every year, it’s the sum of all these parts that make this the dish it is. It is one of our absolute favourites. Having said that, Vincenzo has firmly requested I don’t make it for a while having eaten it, what with leftovers, five times this week, thus proving you can have too much of a good thing.

You can of course use a very good, full flavoured homemade vegetable stock and yes, of course you can make this with frozen peas, after all some of the fresh ones leave alot to be desired, those mealy, out-of-town canonballs. Just remember to call call it rice and peas thats all.

Risi e Bisi

Apparently serves 4 but the two of us can polish off most of this leaving nice (very small portion of) leftovers for later. So lets say serves 4 as a modest primo and 2 as a main course for hungry (greedy) people.

Adapted from Marcella Hazan’s Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking

  • 1 kg young, sweet, peak of season unshelled peas (should yield about 300g of peas) or if you really can’t find them 300g of frozen peas.
  • 50g butter
  • 1 small white onion finely chopped
  • salt
  • 225g Italian rice (vialone nero or carnaroli rice)
  • 750ml homemade chicken or vegetable stock
  • a handful of finely chopped flat leaf parsley
  • 50g freshly grated parmesan

Shell the peas and set them aside and reserve 10 of the nicest empty pods. Now on the inside of each pod is a thin, clear membrane which you can gently pull away (it is very thin so will break and you will need to pull it away in bits.) Cut away any bit you have been unable to skin. keep these skinned pods with the peas.

In a saute pan, deep frying pan or soup pot, saute the onion in the butter over a medium flame until it is soft and translucent. Add the peas and the skinned pods and a good pinch of salt. Cook for a couple of minutes, stirring and nudging.

Add about two-thirds of the broth, reduce the heat and cover the pot, allow it to cook gently for 10 minutes.

Add the rice and the rest of the broth, stir, then put the lid back on the pot and allow it to cook at a gentle but persistent simmer for about 20 minutes and the rice is cooked but still firm to the bite. I start tasting after 15 minutes.

Stir in the parsley and gated parmesan and then turn off the heat. Taste, add salt if you think it is necessary and then serve with a bowl of grated parmesan so people can help themselves.

Thank you for all your nice, supportive and not so supportive – I value criticism too, even if it is anonymous – comments and messages about my last post, the rather self-possessed one that felt nearly as messy as my departure. I will pick up where I left off at some point, I’m just not sure when. Hope you are having a good weekend wherever you are.


Filed under food, grains, pasta and rice, rachel eats Italy, recipes, vegetables

50 responses to “More peas please.

  1. Guess who just bought a kilo of peas this morning? 🙂 When I stop eating them directly out of the pod (the small ones are so sweet!) I’ll have to make something with them.

    • rachel

      Sara – the first kilo SHOULD be eaten raw and straight from the bag. For the second Kilo, this is a great recipe.

  2. SRM

    desperately hoping that you’ll write a book one day.

  3. I’ve been dreaming of this dish all day, and stumbling over this piece is like finding I’ve been evesdropped on (in the best possible way — with recipes!). You may have had too much, but I’ve barely begun. Thank you for this.

    • rachel

      Oh no, where peas are concerned there is no such thing. I dream of this dish too – well I did, till we overdosed this week….it is such a good recipe, but then we expect that from Marcella.

  4. Eva

    I think you must be my soul mate. Everybody I know makes fun of me for keeping peas in the freezer, and they are probably the one food item that I am absolutely consistent on keeping in stock. That, and salt, maybe. This looks divine. Mmmmmmm. Might make it tonight, actually.

  5. Amy

    looks delicious. might have to make this sometime this week.
    We’ll use vegetable stock instead of chicken
    I wonder if the kids will eat it!

  6. Peas in the freezer is a must, I’m never without my bag of Birds eye’s finest!

    This will sound like an odd question but is the consistency of the rice in this dish similar to that of risotto? You see, it sounds delicious but risotto and I have never gotten along very well – shame on me I know… Gx

    • rachel

      Gemma, I have risotto issues too, so I think of this as a very thick soup and let it bubble away, give it the odd stir and don’t worry, it is a forgiving dish. Yes the texture if like a very loose risotto in the end (with less worry) so it might even help with your risotto in the future. God I am so long winded lately…

  7. Ditto on keeping peas in the freezer–and Parmesan rinds! Because my husband has never been a great fan of peas, when we were younger and he was working late, risi e bisi was always a favorite dish I’d make for myself.

    • rachel

      I’m glad you have pea habit too and the rinds (when they are not iced to the wall) are wonderfully useful things aren’t they?

  8. Fresh peas and nostalgia. My imagination has you shelling peas with a cigarette hanging from the corner of your mouth, and Vincenzo calling you a barbarian.

    Birds eye in freezer will make for soupy rice with peas soon, I think.

    • rachel

      The thing is, well, that is not a million miles…..I’m a barbarian after all. I did give up in the end, the cigs that is, not the peas.

  9. Dea

    I’m with SRM,
    I sincerely hope you gather these posts and publish a book 🙂
    We made your frittedda, minus the artichoke as I was out and it was delicious. Ciao bella 🙂 Dea xoxo

    • rachel

      Glad you liked it – I bet peas and beans from Marsala made it especially delicious….and thank you I take that as such a nice compliment x

  10. i always keep peas in the freezer in case someone pops in and i need to make a pakistani cumin and pea pilaf. rachel- your photos are beautiful because they are taken in your home- in a simple, rustic yet elegant manner. i love looking at them- a peek into your testaccio home. and risi e bisi are wonderful. now i must bu a f. henderson book. x shayma

  11. I’m totally going gaga here over the idea of eating soup with a fork…

  12. Ha , great minds! I made Risi e Bisis too recenty and blogged about it. That’s just my first Risi e Bisi, there will b a few other before the all too short fresh pea season ends. I use the pods to make peapod stock it really adds a little extra something. Buon Appetito!

  13. Lovely writing, wonderful recipes, as usual…but your first photograph in this post has really stolen my heart. I simply love it!

  14. Overcooked peas with butter and salt are dee-licious!

    We need *much* more than one kilo raw from the bag when pea season starts into full swing around my house. When we’re finally ready to start cooking them, this rice and peas is topping the list.

  15. lo

    Ah… overcooked peas and cigarettes. We have our little secrets, don’t we? Fortunately, it doesn’t mean we don’t “know better” 🙂

    These days I stockpile peas. Unfortunately, what that means is that I get over-confident about how many I have on hand. You can probably imagine the horror when I rummage through the freezer and realize that I’m completely out.

    That first photo says it all… love it!

    • rachel

      We most certainly do..the cigs did go eventually but not without a fight. The frozen peas however live on – heres to stockpiling !

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  17. That first photo might just be one of my favourites of yours, ever.

    Tommy Cooper – most amusing. Now I know where my NZ-born but English-raised partner gets his ‘just-like-that’ from.

    Beautiful food. I grew peas last year. Pretty plants, too.

  18. I love this dish! This year (for the first time) I planted peas in my little front yard; shoots and tendrils are finding their way up the trellis now—we’ll see if nice pods form in the weeks to come. Can’t wait!

  19. Val

    Rachel, I absolutely love reading your posts. Your passion for food comes through so vividly that it is incredibly inspiring. I’ve also spent the past 5 years living outside of the UK and what I particularly enjoy about reading your posts is your English outlook and tone. Makes me feel right at home.

    I am, as apparently are others, waiting for the day this blog becomes a book.

    PS. My freezer does not function unless there are a bag of peas in there!

    • rachel

      I love all this frozen pea companionship. Thank you for that Val, it is nice to know
      my English tone is understood and appreciated !! I think 5 years is a milestone so heres to us !

  20. Every time I visit your blog I stay for a while. Kinda like when I’m reading a new issue of my favorite magazine. I didn’t comment on your last post, but I must say, it really affected me. I feel, and felt, so many of the same things that you described so eloquently. I hope one day you write a book. I will be the first in line to buy it.

  21. I found your blog through smitten kitchen, and now have tried I think nearly 75% of your recipes. I made this tonight, and it has cured my head-ache as well as my midterm blues. Cheers from a very full, happy, seattle uni student!

    PS I keep frozen peas in my freezer too, but I never get around to cooking them. They are a favourite snack just as they are, especially on hot summer days!

  22. Hi! I have been lurking for a while and thought I would come out of the cyber closet!
    I tried your risi e bisi and it was delicious. I love experimenting but find Italians so domineering in the kitchen they often take over and take all the fun out of it for you. So I’m secretly reading your recipes and cooking them on the sly. So far feedback from my Italian housemates has been very positive. Maybe soon they’ll be able to be present while I’m cooking and not immediately whip my wooden spoon out of my hand!
    Thanks again for an invaluable service!

    • rachel

      Tell me about it – bossy too – but then again, I am quite bossy too. Glad the Risi and bisi went down well and that
      you de-lurked to say hello- Hello -this rain in Rome is very boring isn’t it?

  23. Do you know, I panic at the thought of running out of frozen peas too!

  24. OOOOOooooh yummy. I’ve been looking for something to do with rice. And my daughter loves peas, too. I know she is going to love this. thanks!

  25. sarah

    Rachel, I absolutely love your blog and recipes. It may be 3 years too late but /simon Hopkinson does a wonderful version of this Hazan risi e bisi in his book The Good Cook. He altered it be simply blitzing the pea pods in a processor and added them to the sock, then strained the stock. It really does make a difference. The dish is greener and sweeter. You may wish to try.

    • rachel

      I like this tip, not surprising as I like just about everything SH cooks, writes, says. Thank you thank you, I will let you know x

  26. Gertrude

    really easy and so delicious, even with frozen peas, sushi rice and powder vegetable stock. can’t imagine what the fresh version is like.

    • rachel

      It’s fantastic. But as you said, good with frozen peas too and stock too (I love frozen peas). Thanks for comment

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