Cooking Off the Cuff: Peas and Rice With a Twist of Lettuce

This is a big annual event for Jackie and me, and our first pea-season dinner is usually... peas.
06/11/2014 09:53 am ET Updated Aug 11, 2014

This past weekend, at last, shelling peas arrived at our New York City farmers' market. As I've said in the past, this is a big annual event for Jackie and me, and our first pea-season dinner is usually... peas. A big bowl of them, often cooked ᅢᅠ la franᅢᄃaise (with onions, bacon and lettuce), served with bread and butter and a spoon. Saturday's, though, weren't perfect: Many pods were underpopulated and quite a few looked a bit sunstruck. So I didn't buy the usual pillowcaseful, just enough to yield about a cup of shelled peas.

With that small quantity, a risotto seemed like a good introduction to the 2014 crop. There's nothing innovative about cooking a pea risotto, but this one was something new: I had those bacon-and-lettuce peas in mind and I decided to bring the two dishes together into a lettuce-finished pea risotto. If I kept the flavors light, the lettuce's distinctive but subtle qualities would shine -- but not outshine the peas.

First, having shelled the peas, I did something entirely optional: I washed and chopped the pods, put them into a pressure cooker with a small sprig of lovage and water to cover, and pressure-cooked for 20 minutes, which yielded a light broth that I used for the risotto. If I'd skipped this step, I'd have used much-diluted chicken stock (say one part stock to three parts water) or a light vegetable stock, or even salted water.

I also cut some soft-leafed lettuce into 3/8-inch (1 cm) strips -- enough to yield about 3 cups (75 cl by volume) loosely packed. That sounds like a lot, but once it was cooked it collapsed to nearly nothing.

For my usual version of peas ᅢᅠ la franᅢᄃaise, I use smoked bacon and spring onions; here I didn't want anything as potent as bacon, and I didn't have any spring onions. So I cut a few thin slices of Italian speck -- lightly smoked dry-cured pork, like prosciutto -- and cut these into strips. And from the onion family I picked a medium-large shallot, which I diced small and put to sweat in butter with a sprinkling of salt; when it was tender and translucent I added the speck and cooked it for half a minute while I measured 2/3 cup (say, 150 g) carnaroli rice -- this was for two portions.

I added the rice and stirred it around in the butter for another half minute, then proceeded in the usual way for risottos, raising the heat to medium and adding first around 1/3 cup (80 ml) white wine and stirring until it was absorbed, then hot stock a couple of ounces (60 ml) at a time as the liquid was absorbed, continuing to stir pretty much constantly. I get much better consistency with tireless stirring, but if you are happy with another method by all means use it.

When the rice was, say, three minutes from being done, I stirred in the shelled peas, then a minute later the lettuce. Sure enough, as I kept the ingredients moving, the mountain of lettuce eroded to the tiniest hillock, lending its juices (mostly water, but with flavor) to the pan. When peas, lettuce and rice were all cooked, with the slightest crunch left in the ribs of the lettuce, I vigorously stirred in a lump of butter (maybe 1-1/2 tablespoons or 20 g) and a nice handful of grated parmesan. Here, the Parmesan isn't really optional: The dish will taste flat without it (I know because I tried it before adding cheese). Still, if you're making a dairy-free variation on this dish, you could add a handful of chopped fresh mint and some grated lemon zest. But the savoriness of the cheese is the best way to go.

The lettuce and speck did indeed make this risotto stand out from other pea-and-rice dishes we've eaten over the years. It was fun to eat (risotto always is, and the lettuce made it slurpier than usual), and its flavors hinted at the big bowl of peas we'll be eating once the crop is up to speed - perhaps by the time this is posted!

Peas and Rice With a Lettucy Twist