You might not know it from the weather around here, but spring is finally here. And one of the great delights of this time of year in Italy is the appearance of tiny young vegetables the Italians call primizie. While in this era of year-round asparagus the seasons are not quite so discernible in our supermarkets, a few vegetables still retain their seasonality—like fresh peas. I saw some today and just knew I had to make something with them—and what better than a beautiful veal spezzatino? Of course, even if you don’t have fresh peas on hand, you can make this deliciously delicate stew with frozen peas as well.
For the veal:
- 1 kilo (2 lbs) veal stew meat, cut into cubes
- 1/2 large onion, finely minced
- Olive oil and a knob of butter
- Salt and pepper
- White wine
- 2-3 plum tomatoes, fresh or canned, roughly chopped
- Broth or water, q.b.
- A sprig or two of fresh mint (optional)
For the peas:
- 1 kilo (2 lbs) fresh English peas, in their pods (or 750g/25 oz frozen peas)
- 1/2 large onion, finely minced
- A large knob of butter
In a large braising pan, sauté the onion very gently in the oil and butter until it softens, adding a spoonful of water while it cooks to make sure it doesn’t brown. Turn up the heat to medium and add the veal, turning and mixing it with the onion, until the veal has lost its raw color completely and browned just a bit at the edges. (Adjust the heat if needed to avoid the onion burning.) Season with salt and pepper, turn again, and add a splash of white wine and let it cook down.
Add the tomatoes, turn again, and let things simmer for a few minutes. Now add enough water or broth to almost cover the veal and nestle the sprigs of mint among the veal cubes. Cover the pan, lower the heat as far as it will go, and let the veal simmer until it is fully tender, about 1-1/2 hours or so, depending on the age of the veal and the size of your cubes. Add water from time to time if things get a bit dry.
Meanwhile, if using fresh peas, shell them. Sauté the onion in butter as above until very soft and sweet. Add the shelled peas and let them simmer to absorb the flavors of onion and butter, seasoning well, then add enough water or broth to cover. Simmer the peas over moderate heat until the liquid has entirely cooked off. The peas should be mostly, but not quite entirely, done.
About ten minutes or so before the veal is done, add the simmered fresh peas (or the frozen peas) to the braiser. Let the peas and veal simmer together until both are fully tender. Once again, add a bit of water if things get too dry. The resulting sauce should, however, be quite thick and rich.
Serve right away.
The terms spezzatino, but the way, comes from the Italian verb spezzare, which means ‘to break’ and is the usual way to refer to any braise where the main ingredients is cut up into small pieces. This basic technique lends itself to all sorts of meat, including lamb, beef or chicken. Braising meat this way with peas is a common combination in Italian cooking which, as long-time readers might remember, we’ve featured done with quail or even cuttlefish or squid. Another, even more common combination is potato, which you can make exactly the same way, just add the potatoes to the braiser (without any pre-cooking) cut into cubes about 15 minutes or so before the end.
The amount of tomato is really a matter of taste, some recipes call for much more tomato (in which case you can reduce or omit the broth); the dish can also be made entirely in bianco (without tomato). Some recipes call for the classic soffritto italiano of onion, celery and carrot (and sometime a bit of pancetta) but I prefer the simplicity of onions only. The mint is my own personal choice for a fresh herb; Ada Boni‘s version calls for bay leaf, I’ve seen some recipes with sage, but most recipes don’t call for herbs at all. If you’re not in the mood to dirty a second pan, you can add the peas directly to the braiser, about 20 minutes ahead rather than 10, but I find that pre-simmering the peas with butter and onions brings out their sweetness very nicely. The white wine provides some acidity to balance out the sweetness dish, but—careful!—just a splash will do.