Sunday, December 19, 2010

pea and pancetta risotto

I have been thinking about this dish since my plane ride from Seattle to San Francisco nearly two weeks ago. I knew I would be traveling home to a ripe lemon on the tree in my backyard (the very first!) and was thinking about how to put it to use. I had made a meyer lemon risotto in the summer with lemons from a friend's tree that turned out quite tasty. I started thinking about what veggies might go well in a variation on that dish.

One of the things I love about California is that we're able to get fresh produce all year long. That said, we are coming to the time of year when the variety of local veggies becomes a little more limited. There are nearly always plenty of dark leafy greens, which I love, but I recently made a chard risotto and so was looking for something different in this particular instance.

Enter frozen peas.

Frozen produce is a great alternative to fresh. Fruits and vegetables are typically frozen at their seasonal peak and freezing preserves the vitamin content. In fact, frozen produce often has higher nutrient content than non-local fresh counterparts that have to be shipped long distances from farm to grocery store. This means if you can't eat local, from a nutritive standpoint, frozen fruits and vegetables are often the next best choice.

As a child, I remember eating frozen peas often. I recall sitting at the table, eating peas one at a time with my fingers, squeezing the insides into my mouth before popping the skin in. In retrospect, I'm surprised my mother tolerated this, though I suppose when parents can get their kids to happily eat vegetables, they are willing to perhaps let some other things (e.g. eating with one's hands) slide.

Let's spend a moment on peas and pancetta. Again, looking back to my childhood, I seem to remember frozen peas always being served with baked potatoes. And I recall topping my baked potatoes with Bac-Os ("bacon flavored chips" for those unfamiliar). Thinking back, I have to believe that is probably where the taste memory that is the basis for this dish originated.

There is certainly something about peas and pancetta that make them perfect for each other. Beyond the alliteration (which I enjoy), I think it's the combination of both texture and taste: soft and sweet on the one hand, crisp and salt-brined on the other.

As I mentioned, one reason I'm excited about this dish is because it incorporates the first ripe lemon from my lemon tree. You may recall that I've had this tree for quite some time - since August 2009, to be exact. Though it blossomed almost immediately, the actual process of growing lemons was quite slow at the beginning, I think due to the tree's initial location where it didn't get much direct sunlight and inhabited a pot slightly smaller than recommended. When I transplanted it into a wine barrel in our yard this past April when we bought our house, the tree decided it was lemon producing time. It had a single lemon on its branches at that point, about the size of a silver dollar and dark green. It's this same lemon (now fully ripe) that is in our risotto dish this evening:

The very first lemon blossom in summer 2009.

Fast forward 16 months: the first ripe lemon!

The tree is now packed with ripening lemons (the one plucked for the risotto is on the bottom right).

The resulting risotto was magical. A sweet, tangy, salty meal that conjured the bright taste of spring in the almost-winter (that starts officially the day after tomorrow)!

Pea & Pancetta Risotto
Serves 4

2 c. frozen peas, thawed
1/4 lb. sliced pancetta, roughly chopped
2 Tbsp. olive oil
1 Tbsp. butter
1/2 yellow onion, chopped
1 c. arborio rice
1/2 c. white wine
juice of 1 lemon (note: grate peel first)
4 c. hot chicken stock
1 Tbsp. grated lemon peel
1 Tbsp. fresh mint leaves, chopped
1 tsp. fresh thyme, chopped
a pinch of white pepper
1/4 c. parmesan, grated

Puree half of the peas in a food processor. Set aside.

Crisp pancetta in a medium pan over medium heat. Drain on paper towels. Set aside.

Heat oil and butter in a pot (I use my french oven). Add onion and cook until translucent. Add rice. Stir until rice is coated with oil and butter. Add white wine and lemon juice. Adjust temperature to maintain a constant simmer. Stir regularly until liquid is absorbed.

Add chicken stock, 1/2 c. at a time, stirring regularly and allowing the liquid to fully absorb between each addition. Add pureed peas with the last ladle of stock, stirring to fully incorporate.

Add whole peas, lemon zest, mint, thyme, pepper, parmesan, and half of the pancetta. Stir to incorporate.

Serve in individual bowls, topped with remaining pancetta.

One year ago: rocky road fudge

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