Opening a book and starting to read it is one the sweetest of life pleasures. Planning and executing a recipe is another. When I am invited to do both, I cannot refuse. Jenna Blum's The Lost Family1,2,3 is a novel rich in strong characters. Not only the main ones, Peter, June and their daughter Elsbeth, but also those in their lives, from Masha, the wife Peter lost, to Ruth and Sol, the cousins who took in Peter when he emigrated to the US, to Gregg, June's first lover, and others. To give you a sense of the novel without revealing too much of the story, I am using a quote from the back cover1:
A husband devastated by a grief he cannot name, a frustrated wife struggling to compete with a ghost she cannot banish, and a daughter sensitive to the pain of both her own family and another lost before she was born. Spanning three cinematic decades, The Lost Family is a charming, funny, and elegantly bittersweet study of the repercussions of loss and love.
To that I would add: "and of the consequences of not talking." When considering Peter's life experiences in Nazi Germany, it is easy to say 'unspeakable', but his refusal to talk about what happened to him and his family there is at the root of the problems he faces in the life he tries to build in his adoptive country. While I cannot get into the details without revealing too much, I like the image with which the book ends.
Food plays an important role in the novel: Peter incurs his father's wrath when he chooses to work in a kitchen in Berlin; there he meets Masha, his first wife; he survives Auschwitz in part because he works in the kitchen; his New York restaurant Masha's becomes his home and family until he meets June, his second wife; later he opens another restaurant and after he retires, he starts writing a cookbook. The novel includes Masha's menu for the fall of 1965 and for the following spring. The latter lists the side dish Spring Peas with Fresh Mint, which inspired me to create the recipe below.
Spring means now peas are abundant at farmers' markets and grocery stores. Masha's dish brought me back to my childhood in Italy: shelling peas was one of the tasks assigned to me. I didn't enjoy it because as a child I did not like peas. Fortunately, later my taste changed and from then on I ate my mother's peas gladly—seconds too. Both Masha's dish and my mother's used shelling peas. When I moved to the US, I tasted first snow peas and then snap peas.4
I decided to use snap peas for this recipe because I like eating the pods (baccelli): delicately crunchy, they give way to tender peas inside. A memory Peter carries of a prisoner next to him killed because of a stolen potato peel, made me keen on choosing a food items that is eaten in its entirety. Doing once's best not to discard any food is one of the important lessons my parents taught me—and in the novel we see Peter's attention to the same concept.
My mother cooked peas with pancetta, a quintessential Italian ingredient. It would disappear immediately from the diet of anybody wanting to lose weight or not to gain it. Nowadays we have a better sense of the role of fat in our diet. In The Lost Family Elsbeth belongs to the first category, while June (a fashion model) to the second. My personal experience is closer to Elsbeth's. After I moved to California, even had I wanted to use pancetta in the kitchen, I could not find it. In more recent years, finally free of eating qualms and with easy access to pancetta, I can dice some and use it to flavor vegetable dishes. I am using what we call pancetta arrotolata (rolled). I ask the butcher to cut it thick so I can then dice it. In Italy we also have pancetta tesa (flat).
Pine nuts are also a common ingredient in Italy and as a child I would spend time collecting pine nuts under Mediterranean pines then crushing the shells to extract the tasty seeds. Adding them to snap peas was a nice idea. Finally, a recipe on Kalyn's Kitchen blog5 made me try to split open the snap peas, which makes for a prettier end result.
- 9 ounces / 250 g sugar snap peas
- 1 tablespoon pine nuts
- 1 tablespoon / 15 ml extra-virgin olive oil
- 1/2 ounce / 15 g pancetta, diced small (from a thick slice)
- 2 ounces / 55 g red spring onion, diced small
- 1 garlic clove, minced
- Fine sea salt, to taste
- 1/2 teaspoon Herb Sesame spice blend6 (sesame seed, garlic, onion, basil, parsley, oregano. paprika, thyme, dill, white pepper, cayenne pepper)
Trim the top of the sugar snap peas, pull the string on the concave side of the pods, then split them open along the seam with the tip of a blade.
Toast the pine nuts in dry skillet for 2-3 minutes, paying close attention so they don't burn. Set them aside. Have all the other ingredients ready.
Warm up a wok. Add the oil and swirl it around to coat. Add the pancetta and let if fry gently for 2 minutes. Add the onion, stir and let it fry gently for 2 minutes. Repeat with the garlic for 1 minute. Turn up the heat and add the sugar snap peas. Stir well. Cook for 5-7 minutes (depending on the size, freshness of the vegetable and personal taste), stirring often. Adjust the heat level so the peas sizzle gently.
When the snap peas are ready, adjust the salt, sprinkle the spice mix and pine nuts, stir well and take off the heat. Serve immediately.
...but I can eat the whole plate by myself.
Check out The Lost Family Supper Club menu page to see what other participating bloggers have cooked inspired by the novel.
This is also my contribution to the 33rd edition of Novel Food, the literary/culinary event that Lisa of Champaign Taste and I started some time ago and that I continue to host.
Details in the announcement post.
1 The book's page on the publisher's site
2 Jessica Blum's website Instagram account and Facebook page
3 HarperCollins: Facebook • Pinterest • Instagram
4 Snap pea on wikipedia. The Italian translation of both snow peas and snap peas is piselli mangiatutto, which means 'peas of which one eats (mangia) everything (tutto), the pod and the peas inside — after removing the top and the lateral string.
5 Sugar snap pea recipe on Kalyn's Kitchen
6 The Spice and Tea Exchange's Herb Sesame spice blend (the store is in Ashland, OR)
Click on the button to hear me pronounce the Italian words mentioned in the post:
or launch the piselli mangiatutto con pancetta e pinoli audio file [mp3].
[Depending on your set-up, the audio file will be played within the browser or by your mp3 player application. Please, contact me if you encounter any problems.]
FTC disclosure: I have received the linen free of charge from the manufacturer (la FABBRICA del LINO). In conjunction with this event I have received a copy of the book and a small ox of truffles. I have not and will not receive any monetary compensation for presenting these items on my blog. The experience shared and the opinions expressed in this post are entirely my own.