Most of the time when I’m cooking I’m inspired by an ingredient. Something I see at the market looks so vibrant and good that I can’t not bring it home to play with. What I end up actually making has more variables in play. How much time I have, how many people I’m cooking for and what other ingredients I have at hand.
Another big influence on the meals I cook at home are dishes I’ve eaten that have been prepared by others. Restaurants loom large, but so do dinners we’ve had at friends houses. I usually try to wrangle a recipe, but more often than not I have to play it by ear when trying to recreate things at home.
Last week I attended a luncheon. How often do you use that word? Luncheon? Whenever I say that word I think of formal day time affairs, with crisp white table cloths, perfect china and stemware and ladies dressed without a wrinkle to be seen. That pretty much sums up the luncheon I went to last week. I’m honored to be on the Dinner Committee (and yes, that’s Dinner Committee with a capital D and a capital C) for the McKim Medal Gala that takes place at the American Academy each year. The prize is given to recognize and honor an individual whose work internationally — most particularly in Italy and in the United States — has contributed significantly to the arts and humanities, and whose life exemplifies creative and intellectual exchange across the arts, scholarship, language, and culture. Past honorees have included Umberto Eco, Cy Twombly, Renzo Piano and Riccardo Muti. This year’s prize winner is the architect Zaha Hadid. While the award ceremony is the main event, the purpose of the dinner is to raise money to fund two fellowships that allow Italian artists to join the Academy community as Fellows.
The meeting I attended two weeks ago was the funnest of the meetings we have during the year (which mostly have to do with asking people for great sums of money). During this
luncheon meeting we decide not only on the menu, but on floral centerpieces, table setting and general ambiance of the event. The food is always good, the flowers all gorgeous and tableware stunning. But in the end we do manage to decide on peonies over tulips or shrimp risotto over tagliatelle with asparagus.
One of the standout dishes we tried this year was a delicate bowl of chilled soup made from fresh peas. Brilliant green in color, it surrounded a small scoop of parmesan gelato. This was unanimously chosen to be the starter by everyone.
I figured it couldn’t be that hard to recreate and so bought a kilo of peas while we were in Bari, fully intending to whip up just enough to serve as an amuse bouche for Easter lunch. As it turns out, I was too busy making asparagus lasagna to even think about podding the peas. So I ended up bringing them home to Rome a few days later, but still very much wanted to recapture that brilliant green soup.
The soup as I remembered it was very delicate tasting, with not much going on besides the peas themselves. I started with a base of sauteed leeks, and added a potato to thicken it up. To make things more springy I added a huge bunch of fresh mint from the terrace. I also eschewed the scoop of parmesan gelato in favor of the tarter and oh so much easier swirl of yoghurt.
While I had in mind the elegant and brilliantly colored soup served in pristine white Ginori bowls what I ended up with was slightly less, shall we say, luncheon-worthy. While the taste was excellent – the sweet peas paired perfectly with the mint – the color, was, well…..You can compare for your self. See that beautiful photograph above? That was from the tasting luncheon. My own attempt is nestled in those charmingly chipped bowls below. Not the green I was intending.
What I didn’t figure into the recreation of the recipe was the fast cooling that is required to retain that shade of green. Professional kitchens have professional cooling devices that bring the temperature of things down rapidly. While I could have put together an ice bath I guess, I just let the soup cool down enough to then put in the fridge for a few hours. While the taste was superb, the color, I fear, would not have passed muster for a gala dinner honoring Zaha Hadid.
But as an amuse bouche for a dinner at home? It was pretty much the perfect summation of spring. Green enough I guess, and I think it should win some kind of award for how fast everyone gobbled it up.
- 2 kilos peas / 4 pounds peas in their pods
- 1 big leek, finely chopped
- 1 medium potato, diced
- 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 1 big bunch of mint, chopped
- 6 cups light vegetable stock
- salt, pepper
- whole yogurt
- Take the peas out of their pods and set aside
- Pour olive oil into pot and heat to medium. Add the chopped leeks, salt and pepper. Let cook until softened, about 15 minutes.
- Add the potatoes, stir and then add the stock. Let cook until the potatoes are almost done.
- Add the peas. The stock should come up about 2 inches above the peas. If their isn’t enough, add water. Bring to a simmer and let cook until the peas are just done. Timing will depend on your peas. If the peas are very small, this could take just five minutes.
- When the peas are done, add the chopped mint, and cook for one more minute.
- Take the soup off the heat and, using an immersible blender, blend until smooth.
- The soup is good both hot or cold. If serving it hot, ladle into bowls and drizzle a bit of yogurt on top. If serving cold, let come to room temperature and then chill in refrigerator.
- Serve in very small bowls as an amuse bouche, or in larger bowls as a first course.