Every family has its own version of comfort food. For us — an Italian American clan that immigrated 100 years ago from Naples and Sicily — vegetable pasta dishes have supplied not only nourishment for each generation, but a sense of well being. The continuity of eating something your great-grandparents, grandparents and parents ate is both reassuring and calming. The premise for these dishes all starts with the same idea: take whatever vegetables are in season and fresh, sauté with olive oil, garlic or onions, and maybe throw in some tomatoes for good measure. Mix with pasta and you have a meal.
Pasta Piselli is one of those dishes. A dish made with peas, tomatoes, herbs and onions, it is simple and forthright. There is nothing showy about this dish. Yet the mix of fresh spring onions and just-shelled English peas makes it not only the perfect family meal, but also elegant enough to serve to guests.
Now I need to confess that my use of fresh peas is unique in my family. Somewhere along the way — I’m guessing during the Depression — canned peas were employed as the main ingredient. My grandmother made the dish with canned peas, as did my mother. Yet although I adored this dish as a child, I have always made it a little differently, using fresh or frozen peas instead. This is probably because I really don’t like canned vegetables. Plus fresh peas are only available for a short while in the spring, which means I need to take advantage of their wonderful verdant sweet flavor while they last. Prepared with small spring onions, and, if you’re lucky, some nice early tomatoes, and you have a dish that celebrates the end of winter.
I made this pasta dish earlier this week after finding some crispy English peas and spring onions at the market. I wasn’t lucky enough to stumble upon heirloom tomatoes, so used my standard can of San Marzano plums that I rely on so much throughout the year. And, because the day was rainy and cold, I added in some pasta water to make the dish soupy. If it had been warm out, I most likely would have left it out. But that’s the great thing about a dish like this; its innate simplicity allows you to easily transform it for whatever mood you’re in. Like all good simple foods, it is malleable, which, I suspect, is why it’s been around for so long.