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Jun 25, 2013
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Wine With…Pasta, Peas, Pancetta & Pesto

“Don’t play with your food!” Remember that cranky command issued to kids by a well-meaning parent or teacher? In our adult lives we’ve turned the directive around. Now, especially during the warm, languid days of summer, we often remind ourselves to play with our food more often--to approach menu planning, recipe development and, yes, sometimes even wine selections, in a lighthearted spirit.

Much of our inspiration comes from our friends Margianne and Arthur, who’ve dreamed up a food-themed game that involves dishes whose main ingredients all begin with the same letter of the alphabet. In a recent adaptation of the challenge, we settled on the letter “P,” for the simple reason that fresh peas are now in season. The resulting dish was delectable on its own and even better with a wide range of lively-tasting wines. Some day we might even build on the theme by using penne (instead of fettuccine), and by adding plum tomatoes, peppers, and/or porcini mushrooms--keeping in mind, of course, that new ingredients will affect the dish’s kinship with the wine.

For this particular gastro game we didn’t include the wine selection, but there’s no doubt that doing so could add an extra dimension to the experiment. Zucchini fritters with Zinfandel anyone?

Pasta with “Ps”

Serves 4

1 small onion, finely minced
1 cup olive oil (divided use)
6 ounces pancetta, minced
1 cup peas (preferable fresh, though frozen is an acceptable substitute)
1 ½ pounds fettuccine or other pasta
2-3 cloves garlic, minced
3 tablespoons pine nuts
1 ½ cups fresh basil leaves, lightly packed
½ cup parsley leaves, lightly packed
½ cup grated Parmesan cheese, plus more to pass at the table
freshly ground pepper

In a small skillet cook the onion in one tablespoon of the olive oil for about a minute, then add the pancetta and continue cooking until the onions are soft and the pancetta is beginning to crisp and brown. (This step may be done ahead.)

Drop the peas into boiling water and simmer no more than 30 seconds. Drain the peas immediately and refresh them in cold water.

Place the garlic and pine nuts in a blender. Tear or coarsely chop the basil leaves and parsley and add them to the blender along with the cheese. Pulse until finely chopped, then add the oil and blend until mixture is fairly smooth and runny. Season with salt and pepper to taste. (May be made ahead.)

Just before serving reheat the onion and pancetta mixture if necessary. Cook the pasta according to package instructions. When finished cooking. drain and transfer the pasta to a serving bowl. Toss it with the pesto and scatter the pancetta over the top. Serve immediately, passing extra cheese at the table.

* * *

Our all “p” dish turned out to be delicious because wonderfully fresh-tasting—just right for a warm summer evening supper. Not surprisingly, it partnered best with chilled white or pink wines, as all but the lightest reds seemed cumbersome alongside it. We tried thirteen separate wines, and found that the best were all themselves fresh and lively, showing little if any oak influence, and bright but not sweet fruit flavors. We had thought that wines with a pronounced herbaceous character would fare well, but while satisfactory, they were outperformed by more nuanced wines, particularly ones with a steely or mineral-like edge. Here are our favorites, all costing less than $20, a price point that seems to make sense for an alliterative summer supper.


Approx. Price


Nals Margreid, Sudtirol -- Alto Adige (Italy) Pinot Grigio 2011

(Imported by The Country Vintner)


Good whites from the Sudtirol or Alto Adige region of Alpine Italy tend to evidence steely, flavors enhanced by a knife edge cut of acidity. That’s precisely the case with this Pinot Grigio. Its bright clean character enabled it to marry well with the peas. while its sharpness allowed it to cut through the richness from the pasta and cheese.

Sincerely, Western Cape (South Africa) Chardonnay 2012

(Imported by Vineyard Brands)


A fairly light Chardonnay, with only 13% alcohol, so quite refreshing. Though it shows a hint of buttery richness, it is in no sense fulsome or overblown. That combination of a lush texture and fresh flavors enabled it to shine brightly with this dish.

Scaia, Veneto (Italy) Garganega/ Chardonnay 2011

(Imported by Tenuta Sant’ Antonio/ Dalla Terra)


A faint echo of pine, especially in the bouquet, gives this wine a hint of mystery, as its flavors evolve unexpectedly – and we should add, deliciously. Much like this pasta dish, it tastes vibrantly multi-layered, and so made for a near perfect pairing.

La Vielle Ferme, Luberon (France) Vin Blanc 2011

(Imported by Vineyard Brands)


The surprise of our tasting, this blend of Grenache Blanc, Bourboulenc and Roussanne tastes of ripe summer fruit with nary a hint of sugary sweetness. Truly dry, with fine balance through its finish, it is medium-bodied and unexpectedly complex. While we’ve liked La Vielle Ferme’s reds in the past, the whites have tended to leave us cold. Not this wine with this dish. It’s a steal at under $10 a bottle.


Villa Maria, Marlborough (New Zealand) Sauvignon Blanc “Cellar Selection” 2011

(Imported by Ste, Michelle Wine Estates)


We tried a few different Sauvignon Blancs with our alliterative pasta, thinking that this grape’s natural herbal quality would match nicely with the peas in the dish. This was our favorite, due in part, however, to the grapefruit and other citrus flavors in it being much stronger than the grassy ones. It turned out that Sauvignons that tasted overtly green turned somewhat shrill in the pairing, while a softer, fruitier version like this performed quite well. As we discover over and over again in our tastings, you really do need to try a food and wine match to know whether it succeeds. Theorizing is no substitute for actual experience.