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Tapping an ancient grain for a modern meal


If you’re looking for a quick, easy and healthful dinner, farro pasta with peas and pancetta is the dish for you. It’s neither tomato-y nor cheesy, but rather light and green — a celebration of herby sweetness that is just what you want during these lengthening spring days.

Pasta with peas is a classic combination, with many variations, some brothy and some creamy. A salty element — usually pancetta, guanciale, prosciutto — is often involved.

This particular pasta is dressed with cooked fresh green peas (snow, sugar-snap and garden), scallions, sage, parsley, mint and lemon, some crumbled ricotta salata and a little pancetta. (For a vegetarian version, you can use roughly chopped olives instead.) It can be made in about the same amount of time as some other speedy pastas: Once the peas are prepared, it’s ready faster than you can say cacio e pepe.

Using frozen peas, it will be done even quicker, but if possible, take the time to find fresh peas. At the store or farmstand, look for garden peas — often called English peas — sold in the pod and ready to shuck. A pound of pods will yield about 1 1/2 cups of shucked peas. Choose pods that are not fat and overfilled; they should have some give when you squeeze them, so you know the peas inside are small and tender. For sugar-snap peas, select specimens that are smooth, shiny and unblemished — the flatter, the better. Snow peas must seem recently picked, firm and crisp.

To accompany the verdant peas, I recommend pasta made from farro, an ancient (as in millenniums-old) grain at the forefront of the history of wheat. Though similar to modern wheat, farro is higher in protein and other nutrients and is sometimes tolerated by diners with wheat allergies.

A bit confusingly, when Italians use the word farro, they may be referring to one of three ancient wheat relatives: einkorn, emmer or spelt. Though whole-grain farro may be better known for its use in soups and salads or as an alternative to rice, when it is milled into flour, it makes a beautiful tawny-brown, nutty-tasting pasta. Cooked properly, it retains a pleasant chewiness.

It is a lovely contrast to behold and savor: earthy, rustic pasta mingling with beautiful, herb-perfumed sweet peas. But if that is unavailable to you, whole-wheat or buckwheat noodles are quite pea-friendly, too.

Farro Pasta With Peas, Pancetta and Herbs

Total time: 30 minutes

Yield: 4 to 6 servings

Ingredients

Salt and pepper

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

4 ounces pancetta, about 2 thick slices, cut crosswise into lardons

1 pound farro spaghetti or another pasta shape

1 1/2 cups chopped scallions, about 2 trimmed bunches

1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper

2 tablespoons roughly chopped sage

1 1/2 cups shucked garden peas, about 8 ounces

1 1/2 cups snap peas, about 8 ounces, trimmed

2 cups snow peas, about 6 ounces, trimmed

2 tablespoons butter at room temperature

1/2 teaspoon lemon zest

2 tablespoons roughly chopped parsley

2 tablespoons roughly chopped mint

1/4 cup crumbled ricotta salata or mild feta cheese, about 2 ounces

Steps

1. Place a large pot of well-salted water over high heat and bring to a boil for the pasta.

2. Place a large, wide skillet over medium-high heat. Add olive oil and pancetta. Let pancetta sizzle and take color, stirring, until nicely browned, with a little give, about 5 minutes. Remove pancetta with a slotted spoon and set aside.

3. Start to cook the pasta, timing it to be ready just as the peas are done. Cook until pasta is quite al dente (less time than package directions indicate). Drain pasta, reserving a cup or so of pasta-cooking water.

4. Leaving skillet over medium-high heat, add scallions, crushed red pepper and sage, stirring well to coat. Add 3 types of peas and season generously with salt and pepper. Cook, stirring, until firm-tender, about 5 minutes.

5. Add drained pasta to vegetables in the pan, along with 1/2 cup pasta-cooking water and let simmer. Toss well with 2 wooden spoons, or tongs, and season pasta–vegetable mixture once more with salt and pepper. Add more pasta cooking water as necessary, until vegetables have softened a bit and pasta is just done.

6. Turn off heat and stir in butter. Mix together lemon zest, parsley and mint, and sprinkle over pasta.

7. Transfer pasta to a large, low bowl, sprinkle with ricotta salata and serve. (You might also divide the dish into individual servings.)


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