A classic Roman specialty, Peas and Prosciutto is one of Spring's highlights because the petite peas of Roma are famous for their sweetness. With only three main ingredients – peas, prosciutto crudo, and onions, this dish is very easy to make. If you happen to find beautiful white spring onions, be sure to include them instead of regular onions. Thinly slice their white bulbs with light green stems, saving the dark green part at the top of the stems for another use. In Italy, we love combining peas with lettuce because it is so refreshing, so a few handfuls are added to this signature dish. I enjoy using delicate butter lettuce, but choose any lettuce whether it is crunchy Romaine, or smooth tender Bibb, Cobb, or Boston, as long as it is mildly sweet to complement the natural sweetness of the dish.
Layering: This technique is the most important part of making this dish for giving unified flavor while maintaining inherent texture of each ingredient. No mush! Keep it simple and layer. First is a layer of onions and garlic, sauteed for a few minutes in a combination of olive oil and butter. Then distribute the peas over. Pour in liquid. I prefer adding water so the ingredients make their own broth, but you can add mild vegetable or chicken broth. Bring to a boil, then decrease to simmer. Do nothing else so all of those delicious juices mingle together creating sauce that barely naps the main ingredients. Then sprinkle prosciutto crudo over the peas, so this cured ham remains tender. Some chefs add prosciutto with the onions, but that causes it to toughen and become salty. Adding lettuce at the very end of braising changes this dish, giving it fuller flavor and a light texture. It’s also a great way to use up that leftover lettuce that is wilting in your refrigerator.
Traditionally, this dish is served as a side dish or contorno complementing all meat preparations from beef, veal, and lamb to duck and pork. It is great as topping for warm crostini, too, as an antipasto or a light meal. Peas and Prosciutto with Lettuce tastes best served warm or at room temperature, so making it in advance is ideal for buffets and dinner parties.
4 servings of about 1 cup (237 ml) volume per serving. Cooking time is 30 to 35 minutes.
2 tablespoons (30 ml) extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons (1 ounce or 28 g) unsalted butter
4 medium spring onions, thinly sliced (1 cup or 237 ml volume sliced)
OR 1/2 small white onion, thinly sliced
4 large garlic cloves, slightly crushed
Lightly salt to taste
20 ounces (567 g) fresh raw peas (4 cups or 946 ml volume)
1 1/4 cups (10 ounces or 296 ml) water, or vegetable or chicken broth, adjust as needed
2 ounces (57 g) prosciutto crudo, chopped (4 thin slices)
8 ounces (227 g) lettuce, chopped in medium-size pieces (6 cups or 1.4 l volume; 1 medium head)
1. Layer Ingredients: Use a deep non-stick pan or pot with a 9 or 10-inch (23 or 25-cm) diameter. Over low heat, warm the oil and melt the butter in a large non-stick pan. Add the onions and crushed garlic cloves then lightly salt to extract their juice. Warm through for 2 to 3 minutes, then turn over and continue cooking for 2 minutes. Level the onions and garlic into an even layer.
2. Peas: Distribute the peas over the onions and garlic cloves making one even layer of raw green peas. Pour in enough water and/or broth to just touch the bottom of the pea layer, but not cover the peas completely, 1 to 1 1/4 cups (237 to 296 ml). If enough liquid is added completely covering the peas, the cooking time increases and the ingredients become too soft. You can always add a few spoonsful of water or broth near the end of cooking if the peas are becoming dry.
Increase the heat to high and bring the mixture to a boil. (Do not cover. Do not stir during the cooking of the peas even though it will be tempting to do so. Allow them to maintain their shape and integrity.) Reduce the heat to medium and simmer for 20 minutes or until the peas are just cooked through and remain bright green-colored. The onions become translucent, tender, and sweet, but not mushy, and the liquid reduces and concentrates coating the ingredients.
3. Prosciutto and Lettuce: Add the prosciutto crudo and stir into the ingredients. Simmer for 2 minutes. Add the lettuce, heat for 2 minutes, then gently stir the lettuce into the simmering ingredients. Cook for a few minutes more, watching the mound of lettuce quickly wilt into lacy shards. Remove from the heat. Remove the crushed garlic cloves. For optimum flavor, serve warm or room temperature.