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
- 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.