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Career path starts with crostini

The Baltimore Sun

A few months ago, a senior at Amherst College in Massachusetts (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.

For several weeks, Natanya chopped and sliced food 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 menu included barbecued quesadillas, turkey popovers, whole-wheat pizza topped with cheddar and pears, and pea and pancetta crostini. This last offering, she said, had become her signature dish and was everyone's favorite.

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 verdant 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.

Betty Rosbottom writes for Tribune Media Services.

Natanya's Pea and Pancetta Crostini

Makes 18 crostini, or enough to serve 6 to 8

About 18 slices baguette, 1/4 -inch thick each

2 tablespoons olive oil

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more for sprinkling

2 1/2 tablespoons butter (divided use)

1 1/2 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)

1/2 pound (1 1/2 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.

Brush both sides of each baguette 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, 1/2 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-and-pancetta mixture for the garnish. Place remainder in a food processor along with remaining 1/2 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.

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

Per serving: 213 calories, 8 grams protein, 11 grams fat, 5 grams saturated fat, 21 grams carbohydrate, 2 grams fiber, 18 milligrams cholesterol, 438 milligrams sodium. Recipe analysis provided by registered dietitian Jodie Shield.

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