As we pant in anticipation of height-of-summer produce, decent – sometimes just shy of excellent – greenhouse-grown tomatoes are plentiful in our local farmers’ markets, and so are shelling peas. I rarely cook peas with tomatoes, except in a South Asian dish like mattar paneer, and this confluence of crops would usually go by unremarked in our house. But it was precisely because Jackie and I had recently eaten a dish akin to mattar paneer that the peas in the fridge and the tomatoes on the countertop seemed to have been made for each other.
Peas and butter are made for each other too, and so are butter and tomatoes (once you can see beyond the Mediterranean olive-oil model): a smooth, delicate tomato sauce glossed and lightly thickened with butter is a delight with almost anything.
Use the best-tasting tomatoes you can find: Mine were a mixture of two big, gnarled heirloom varieties – lots of flesh and flavor – and a couple of handfuls of extraordinarily sweet-savory, thin-fleshed cherry tomatoes (the best I know are from Stokes Farm at the Union Square Greenmarket if you are shopping in New York). Together these made a bigger batch of juicy puree than I needed for this dish; it did not go to waste.
Once you’ve processed the tomatoes and shelled the peas, both of which can be done even a day in advance, you can finish the sauce in the time it takes to boil the pasta, so this lends itself to last-minute planning. Just make sure you have a suitable short pasta shape in the house: You’ll want something that can be eaten with a spoon so that every mouthful will have its share of peas.
Make the tomato puree. Start by putting a pot of water on to boil. (It can be your pasta pot if you’re not planning to make the tomato puree in advance.) With a sharp knife, cut a shallow X into the smooth end of each tomato. Lower them into the furiously boiling water (in more than one batch, most likely), leave them in for 15 seconds, then remove them with a skimmer or slotted spoon and place them in a bowl of cold water to cool – or right onto your counter if you don’t mind handling hot tomatoes. Slip the skins off, then chop the tomatoes medium fine, discarding the tough area at the stem end.
Put the chopped tomatoes into a bowl, sprinkle generously with salt and stir in the olive oil. Set aside for 20 or 30 minutes to let the juices flow, then crank the tomatoes through a food mill using the finest screen, which will create a seedless puree. This will be of a thin consistency but will be full of flavor.
Shell your peas. (I won’t say that frozen peas are a good alternative, but if you are going to use them behind my back they don’t need to be defrosted, much less shelled.)
When dinner time approaches, bring a big pot of salted water to the boil for the pasta. Put 1-1/2 cups tomato puree into a shallow saucepan or so-called chef’s pan (large enough to eventually hold the pasta) along with a few fresh mint leaves; bring to the boil, lower the heat and reduce to about 1 cup.
Put the pasta in to boil. Add the peas to the reduced tomato puree and simmer until not quite done. When the pasta is about a minute from completion, drain it and stir it into the sauce; simmer, stirring repeatedly, until the pasta is as you like it, 45 to 60 seconds probably.
Stir in the butter; it will combine with the tomato puree to yield a smooth sauce – not a lot of it, but sufficient to coat the pasta and leave a little puddle at the bottom of the bowl. Finish with a few more mint leaves and the parmesan; check for salt and pepper (I used no pepper, but you may miss it). Serve in warmed bowls; you can bring additional grated cheese to the table but probably won’t need it.