Peas as a pasta sauce? Trust me – you’ll love it

It had been so ingrained in me to cook peas minimally, until bright green and just tender, that it felt almost taboo to let them simmer so far past that point when I first tried it. But I stayed the course, because I knew what was needed to capture the essence of the dishes I enjoyed in Italy when I visited several years ago at peak pea season.

Yes, the occasional bright green pea popped up in dishes I had there, but I was taken aback by how the norm in homes and trattorias I visited was to cook the vegetable until it was ultrasoft and olive green, until it began to collapse and developed a deeper sweetness with a robust savoury dimension. Cooking the peas this way gave them more of a comfort food appeal, very much in line with the way vegetables are “smothered” in Southern cooking. Their taste reminded me of how my mum served cooked peas when I was growing up, which I am guilty of chiding her for as old-fashioned (sorry, mom). It took that trip to Italy to realise I absolutely love them this old-school way.

In this dish, peas (fresh or frozen) are simmered in broth with sautéed onion and whole smashed garlic cloves until the vegetable is very soft and a deeper shade of green. With the coaxing of a spoon crushing them a bit as they cook, they gradually transform into a sumptuously savoury pea sauce for pasta. Once the garlic has cooked in the sauce and released a good amount of its flavour, I like to pluck it out for use later in dressing or to spread on toast. But if you want the sauce to be more garlicky, feel free to mash the cloves right into it. Add the slightly undercooked pasta – I use whole grain, but regular is fine, too – to the pan with a splash of starchy cooking water to loosen the sauce, and toss everything until the pasta is al dente and nicely coated.

Served with ribbons of basil and a shower of sharp pecorino romano (or parmesan, if you prefer) this delightful spring meal will open your eyes to a new way of cooking peas, one that’s been around for generations.

Spaghetti with smothered peas

Storage notes: Refrigerate leftovers for up to 4 days.

Total time: 45 minutes

Serves: 4 to 5


¾ tsp fine salt, divided, plus more as needed

5 tbsp olive oil, divided

½ large sweet onion (170g total), diced

2 cloves garlic, peeled and smashed

450g shelled tender fresh peas or frozen peas (no need to defrost if frozen)

250ml low-sodium chicken or vegetable broth

½ tsp freshly ground black pepper, divided, plus more to taste

340g spaghetti, preferably whole grain

32g freshly grated pecorino romano cheese

32g fresh basil leaves, cut into ribbons


Bring a large pot of water to a boil over high heat. Season to taste with salt, if desired.

In a large, high-sided frying pan over medium-low heat, heat 3 tablespoons of the oil until shimmering. Add the onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until the onion is soft and lightly golden but not brown, 5 to 6 minutes. Add the garlic and cook until fragrant, 30 seconds.

Add the peas, broth, ½ teaspoon of the salt and ¼ teaspoon of the pepper, raise the heat to medium-high and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium-low, cover and simmer, stirring occasionally and smashing some of the peas as you stir to thicken the broth, until the peas are very soft, collapsing a bit, and turn a darker shade of green, 20 to 25 minutes. Remove the garlic cloves from the pan and reserve for another use, such as adding to a dressing or spreading on bread.

When the peas have been cooking for 15 minutes, add the pasta to the boiling water and cook it for 2 minutes less than the instructions on the package. Reserve about 1 cup of the pasta water, then drain the pasta and add it to the skillet with the peas (if the peas are ready before the pasta, remove them from the heat and set aside until the pasta is done).

Return the heat under the pan to medium-high and, using tongs, toss the pasta with the peas to combine. Drizzle in the remaining 2 tbsp of oil and enough pasta water, a few tbsp at a time, to loosen the sauce to the desired consistency. Season with the remaining ¼ teaspoon of each salt and pepper and cook, tossing, until the pasta is al dente, about 2 minutes.

Divide among shallow bowls, top each bowl with the cheese and basil, season with the additional salt and/or pepper, if desired, and serve.

Nutrition information per serving, based on 5 | Calories: 480; total fat: 17g; saturated fat: 3g; cholesterol: 4mg; sodium: 493mg; carbohydrates: 69g; dietary fibre: 13g; sugar: 10g; protein: 16g.

This analysis is an estimate based on available ingredients and this preparation. It should not substitute for a dietitian’s or nutritionist’s advice.

© The Washington Post


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