- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 23, 2008

A few months ago a senior at Amherst College (where my spouse teaches) asked if I would meet with her to discuss culinary careers. I love to mentor young people, so we set up a coffee date.

After talking to this 22-year-old, I was so impressed with her passion and determination that I asked if she would like to work with me as an assistant to see what producing a column on entertaining such as this one involves. Her positive reply came in less than a second, along with a smile.

For several weeks, Natanya chopped, sliced and washed dishes while I tested and retested recipes, then arranged and photographed them. She noticed that I sought out dishes that home cooks could reproduce easily and that I paid special attention to garnishes and presentation.

One day, she arrived to tell me about a party she had hosted. She had invited 10 of her friends for a buffet supper of little bites. The dinner was held at an apartment in town, and the menu included barbecued quesadillas, turkey popovers (made with packaged biscuit dough), whole-wheat pizza topped with cheddar and pears, and, finally, pea and pancetta crostini. This last offering, she explained, had become her signature dish and was everyone’s favorite.

I marveled at her creativity. Then I asked if she would make the crostini for me. I watched and took notes as she cooked and measured. The results were delectable.

Toasted bread slices were topped with a puree of peas, sweet onions and pancetta, then sprinkled with bits of creamy goat cheese. As a garnish, each slice was topped with a spoonful of cooked peas and pancetta.

I couldn’t wait to try the crostini and took them to a friend’s birthday dinner. In less than 10 minutes, the delicious toasts had disappeared, and people were asking how to make them.

I told the group that the recipe had been given to me by an aspiring twentysomething cook who tasted the crostini on a summer trip to Italy, then re-created her own version. Everyone agreed that Natanya definitely had a bright future waiting for her in the world of food.

Natanya’s pea and pancetta crostini

1 baguette

2 tablespoons olive oil

Kosher salt

2½ tablespoons butter, divided

1½ cups chopped sweet Spanish onion (about 1 medium Spanish onion)

1 medium clove garlic, minced

1/4 cup water

3 ounces (about 3/4 cup) finely diced pancetta (see note)

½ pound (1½ cups) frozen peas, defrosted and patted dry

3/4 teaspoon dried oregano

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, plus more if needed

3 to 4 ounces creamy goat cheese

Arrange a rack at center position and preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Cut the baguette on the diagonal into 18 slices that are about 1/4 inch thick. (Save leftover baguette for another use.) Brush both sides of each slice with olive oil. Place slices on a baking sheet and sprinkle lightly with salt. Bake 3 minutes to lightly toast the bread. Remove from oven and set aside.

Melt 2 tablespoons of the butter in a large, heavy saucepan set over medium-high heat. Add onion and saute until softened, 2 to 3 minutes, then add garlic and saute 1 minute more.

Add water and cook, stirring, until it has evaporated, about 2 minutes. Stir in the pancetta; raise the heat to high and saute, stirring, until pancetta just begins to render a little of its fat and takes on a little color, 4 to 5 minutes.

Reduce heat to medium low and add peas, oregano, ½ teaspoon salt, and pepper; mix well and cook, stirring, until peas are softened, 3 to 4 minutes. Remove pan from heat and take out a generous 1/3 cup of the pea mixture for the garnish. Place remainder in a food processor along with remaining ½ tablespoon butter. Puree until nearly smooth (mixture will still have a little bit of texture), about 2 minutes.

Spread puree thickly on the toasted slices. Top each slice with small bits of goat cheese. (The crostini can be prepared 1 hour ahead to this point. Leave uncovered at room temperature.)

When ready to bake, preheat oven to 375 degrees. Bake until crostini are warm and cheese has softened, about 5 minutes. Garnish the center of each crostini with a small spoonful of the reserved pea and pancetta mixture. Makes 18 crostini or enough to serve 6 to 8.

Note: Some stores, such as Trader Joe’s, sell packages of pancetta, already diced — a big time saver.

Betty Rosbottom is a cooking school director and author of “The Big Book of Backyard Cooking” (Chronicle Books).


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