Pasta with peas that kids can make
After a brief stint as a waitress, my second job in Rome was, predictably, teaching English. To begin with I worked with actors, most notably with Alessio, who was preparing to audition for an English mini-series. Tall and broad, Alessio could only get into character while pacing or leaning, palms flat on the table, and rocking, which seemed at odds with both the scene he was preparing for, and my small flat. Alessio also caused a stir with my then neighbours Olga and Amelia who, recognising him from the TV and having heard his voice across the internal courtyard, were always outside their door, vigorously bashing a rug or sweeping the step when he left at the end of his lesson.
After actors, I taught children. At first I was at a school on Gianicolo hill, an occasional job with a sublime view over Rome’s patchwork of terracotta and glinting cupolas. That led to private lessons with three families in particular, which is where I learned the best way to teach English (to small kids) is to sing, or cook, or both.
Now, I am no Julie Andrews or Mary Poppins – and certainly not Julie as Mary – but out of frustration that the kids weren’t really learning anything, I began singing. Sometimes the kids chanted back, sometimes they didn’t, but I knew fragments were sticking. With cooking, I learned the obvious – a lesson from my own childhood – that kids like mixing flour and water then pummelling it into a dough, stirring, separating eggs, making pizza, cutting biscuits, and that when doing this they become completely immersed. The physical act reinforcing the words, the kids would then remember bits of the process in English.
A few months ago, I met a former student in the street, a teenage version of his seven-year-old self. I asked how he was, and he replied in shy but good English that he was well. He then reminded me about the day his brother tipped a carton of milk down the side of the worktop and about how later, when the carelessly wiped surface smelled bad, they blamed me, but his mum didn’t mind because they had said “milk” and “spilled” in English.
I am not nearly as patient with my own son in the kitchen when he makes a mess, and I wipe away his creativity with my cloth, half cross, half wishing I was more Montessori. Like most kids he is quickly lured into the process, shoving his hands into flour, making worms of dough, separating eggs, laughing at rude vegetables, often asking why and where, tasting, and full of pride, exclaiming: “I made that”.
While he is usually in charge of rolling, my son would have nothing to do with this pici – an elemental flour and water pasta. My friend’s twin girls, on the other hand, were enchanted. It was the first time they had put on aprons, swished flour and touched dough – squeezing it, pulling it, cramming it in their mouths. My dad reluctantly got involved – he had an email to finish, and his hands are a bit arthritic – but then we all rolled and pulled, an all-consuming floury family meeting. I am not sure how Tuscans get their pici so slender. Ours looked like tapeworms. Emiko’s recipe and pictures look more charming. Fat they may be, but it was laborious fun.
I like how Italian food is democratic and ready for improvisation. It’s family food without the need for labels. With these pici, you could use tomato sauce, peperonata blended with a softening spoonful of ricotta, twice cooked broccoli, or this sauce of pea and ricotta, which is a favourite in our house. At this time of year, this sauce is made even better by a task everyone likes: podding peas. It works just as well with the trusty frozen peas. I suppose you could call it pesto if you wanted, which after all means “pounded” sauce. Treat the recipe
as a template: add more garlic, more or less herbs, a handful of pine nuts or almonds – whatever you like. And don’t forget the pasta cooking water, which loosens everything into a soft cream. Singing as you cook is optional.
Pici pasta with pea and ricotta sauce Serves 4
200g plain 00-flour
200g hard wheat pasta flour
1 tbsp olive oil
For the sauce
400g peas (fresh or frozen) 60g parmesan, grated 150g ricotta A small handful of fresh basil A sprig of mint A garlic clove (optional) Salt and black pepper
1 Tip the flour into a bowl or on to a work surface. Swirl a hole into the centre. Add the oil, then gradually add enough water, working it into the flour, until you have a slightly tacky ball of dough. Knead it for 8 minutes or so, using the heels of your palms, rotating as you go, until soft, smooth and consistent. Rest the dough under an upturned bowl for 30 minutes.
2 Meanwhile, make the pesto. If using fresh peas, cook them in fast-boiling, salted water for 3–5 minutes, then drain. If using frozen, cover with boiling water, leave for 1 minute; drain. Blitz with the herbs and garlic, if using, until you have rough paste. Stir in the ricotta and parmesan. Season to taste.
3 Make the pici by rolling out walnutsized pieces of dough between your palms, then roll on a lightly floured surface, stretching as you go, until they look like thin worms. Bring a pan of water to a fast boil, add salt, stir, then cook until al dente. Drain, reserving a little of the pasta cooking water.
4 Meanwhile, put most of the pea and ricotta sauce in a bowl, thin with a little cooking water, add the pasta and toss. Add more cooking water if it seems a little thick, then divide between bowls. Pass around more parmesan.
Cook’s tip You could include fresh or frozen broad beans. Also, for more texture, don’t puree all the peas. Creme fraiche also works.