RECIPE: Spring pea soup

(Rosalie Harrington)

“The More Things Change, the More They Stay the Same,” is an old expression that will never go away because it rings so true. At least that’s what I’ve assumed as I’ve repeated it through the years. Lately, though, I’ve been having my doubts.

Last Friday, our good friend, Elery, and his wife took me and our friend, Susie, to lunch in Boston.  Susie chose a favorite new restaurant, convenient for her as she recently moved from the North Shore to a great condo in an old Charlestown school building. I have some connection, as it turns out, to that area. My mother worked at the Charlestown Navy Yard for several years, and it was there that she met her second husband, who was in the Coast Guard.

I was excited at the idea of the walking tour which Susie took us on in the historical area around the U.S.S. Constitution.  The old buildings are still there, but Susie pointed out they are “uninhabited, not fit for use because of their toxicity.” It put me in a melancholy mood thinking of my mother inhaling poisonous fumes as she worked on wartime manufacturing.  That said, I decided to remember happier stories, ones that my mother would tell about the two of us traveling by ferry to the North End — a trip that, remarkably, cost just a penny back then. I have a picture of me on one of those journeys wearing a pinafore that she had proudly starched and ironed, probably too stiff to sit in, but I did look cute!

The four of us had a delicious lunch on the harbor, with no sign of Pier Four any longer visible on the much changed South Boston waterfront.  The entire basin is now filled with high rises that look like they were not built for poor people. But, we had a very delicious lunch before going back to Susie’s school/condo, which struck me as being identical to the John Cheverus School I attended in Eastie decades ago.

These times are marked by flux. It is one of our country’s great strengths, I think, the way we embrace change. We grab onto new influences in food, for example, our chefs integrating cutting edge ideas into the old approaches, creating remarkable new flavors. But we have access to these old world ideas because in Europe they have been religious about keeping things the same, resisting change. I am often struck by how strict Italian chefs are about preparing things exactly the way they were taught while our chefs are focused on innovating — it is by creating something new they can best differentiate themselves from the competition.

Our buildings are changing with as much excitement as is our culinary scene. Kendall Square in Cambridge has gone from being filled with old brick warehouses and factory buildings into a vibrant modern biotech and tech center in just a couple of decades. Over even less time, the South Boston waterfront has become the center of Boston’s high-tech “innovation” economy, filling up with the overflow from Kendall Square and new buildings in what seemed like a moment, with start-ups flowing outward toward Watertown and beyond in search of lower rents. In the suburbs, houses built just a generation or two ago are torn down and replaced with more expensive and stylish homes. This spirit of innovation reflects our place in the world, driving change that pushes less vibrant economies to keep pace, creating jobs and improved lives.

Still, maintaining traditions remains an important part of the fabric of civilization. We all love, don’t we, how certain flavors and aromas connect us to our own histories?  With the change in seasons the fresh peas that appear in the market each year are an inspiration — they are so sweet and delicate. While we may try new preparations all the time, the pea itself keeps coming back the same as it was. In my garden this morning I said to my husband “Just look at this garden, every year it comes back by itself.”  Sure, I add a few annuals and perennials every year, but the base is so dependable. A real example that in the midst of change, we are defined by that which is the same.

My mother was very proud when we moved to a three-decker house that she bought us on Neptune Road in East Boston.  Everyone talked about how it was one of the prettiest streets, with tulips planted in between the fifty giant oaks that lined the street all the way up to Wood Island Park.  On Sundays, families came from all over with their strollers, picnic baskets, blankets for napping after lunch and watching the concerts at “The Shell.” Noni always found plenty of dandelions.  Kids went to the beach before the jets arrived at the nearby airport and left too much oil in the ocean, making the beach unusable. But the jets would change more than just the water quality.

In the middle of one summer night we could hear the whir of motors in the neighborhood as we slept, probably from the engine overhaul facility nearby, we thought.  When we woke the next morning we were shocked and saddened by what had caused the noise. It was the Port Authority cutting down the oaks. This was the beginning of my beautiful street being taken over for the benefit of an expanded Logan Airport.  The fifty something three deckers are long gone and the neighborhood no longer exists, living on only in our memories. The smells of tomato sauce no longer waft through that part of East Boston on a summer Sunday — instead, people are taxiing on a runway, on their way, perhaps, to Italy to taste the sauce the way it’s always been done.

While buildings evolve quickly here, the buildings in Italy are more apt to stay the same. In a neighborhood of Rome there is a little house that has been in my family for a hundred years, I suppose — maybe much more.  That house where my Nono was born, owned by the Vatican, is in an area of Rome called Trastevere, and is now occupied by a cousin. As long as there is a Venturelli alive, the house will continue to be handed down from one member of our family to another, all because my great grandfather was a gardner for the Vatican. It stands in the midst of what was once a poor section, but is now a trendy favorite of the artists and movie producers who can afford big rents. While the purpose of the area evolves, the buildings are more apt to stay the same than they are here. And the garden remains exactly like my Nono had described it to me as a child, with the fountain, the grape arbor, even the spigot for watering with a snake coiled around it. Yes, indeed. “The more things change, the more they are the same.”



(Serves six)

  • In a heavy bottom soup pot, add three tbsp. chopped pancetta, prosciutto or ham.
  • Heat over medium heat, stirring to coat all over.  Add a half of a small onion chopped and cook for a few minutes until translucent, not brown.  This is called sweating.
  • Add six cups of fresh of canned chicken or vegetable stock or broth and bring to a boil over medium heat.
  • Add a cup of small diced potato and continue to simmer.  This will help to thicken the soup.
  • If you like,  add any salad greens that have wilted like spinach, arugula, watercress and sorrel are also delicious, about two cups of chopped is nice.
  • Add two tsp. lemon zest and a cup of fresh mint chopped.  Season with salt and white pepper.
  • When the potato appears to be tender add 2 cups of fresh or frozen peas and simmer until the peas are tender, just about two minutes.  Keep them crisp.
  • Cool slightly and puree with a blender or food processor.
  • Serve with a dollop of sour cream or creme fraiche.  It is also delicious chilled. Both hot and cold soup can be garnished with some freshly chopped mint.

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