Marco Polo’s Delight

The world-famous Venetian merchant and explorer Marco Polo is largely credited with introducing the European mind to the mysteries of the Asian continent through his book, Livres des merveilles du monde. And just like Marco Polo, this dish has Italian origins, but an eastern perspective.

I drew my inspiration from a Mario Batali recipe I discovered on Luisa Weiss’ Wednesday Chef. The original calls for paparadelle pasta tossed in a savoury-sweet spring flavored sauce of peas, honey, and mint.

Those wide flat noodles really soak up this bright sauce brilliantly. The original is fantastic, and you should try it, but the pea purée that is the basis for the sauce is so good, that I find myself wanting it far more frequently than I am willing to indulge in macaroni.

So I set off on my own little mental silk road in search of a suitable noodle substitute. And, like Marco Polo himself, I was met with great fortune in the east.

Paneer, a fresh cheese, is used throughout Indian cuisine, especially in the north. It typically appears as the center piece or main protein in dishes. Paneer is so highly esteemed that some dishes featuring it were named for kings, and reserved for royalty.

It makes sense too. Paneer is not only delicious, it doesn’t melt, so it can be fried into crispy, golden cubes of delight. Yet, unknown to many, this is true of almost all fresh cheeses – or those made from the draining and pressing of curds without the addition of any rennet, or aging.

Discovering this banalità caseosa was an eureka! moment for me, especially with regards to the sauce in this recipe. By substituting the eastern tradition of golden-fried fresh cheese cubes for the wide Italian noodles, I found a way to use the delightful pea and mint sauce of the original recipe while avoiding the excess starch and dietary perils of rampant macaroni consumption.

Paneer is a little bit harder to come by, but really any fresh cheese will work. Haloumi might be a bit on the salty side, but otherwise would make a fine substitute. Any of the Mexican fresh cheeses, like queso fresco, queso blanco, or queso panela would work well too. I personally used panela, because I think it has the best texture of the lot, and the mildest flavor, so it really works to showcase the brilliance of the pea and mint sauce.

The recipe is a cinch. Basically you make the sauce by sauteing onions with garlic and hot pepper till they begin to caramelize, then adding peas, and honey. Then you puree the whole mess into a thin paste. Once the sauce is made, you fry the cheese, toss it with some whole peas, and the purée. Once tossed, the mix is topped with fresh mint and some parmigiano for taste.

Frying the cheese can be a little bit of a pain, so make sure you have a good quality non-stick pan. It will make your life much easier, and the cubes of cheese will come out much better looking too. If you get the oil and butter very hot, almost to the point of smoking, then reduce the flame to medium when you add the cheese to the pan, the process will go more smoothly as well.

Marco Polo’s Delight

  • 1 package of queso panela (about 12 oz, or 400 grams.)
  • 2 heaping cups fresh or frozen sweet peas
  • 12 shallots (the original recipe calls for a Spanish onion, but I think any onion will do, and am preferential to shallots)
  • 3 cloves of garlic
  • 2 hot sweet red peppers
  • 1 1/2 tbsp raw honey
  • 4 tbsp sweet cream butter
  • 4 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 very large bunch of mint, about 1 cup packed
  • Parmigiano or Grana Padano for shredding when serving
  • salt and pepper to taste

Cut the panela into about 1/2 to 1 inch cubes.

Slice the garlic, shallots, and hot pepper roughly.

Remove the mint leaves from the stems, and chop roughly.

Heat a pan with 2 tablespoons of olive oil, and 2 tablespoons of butter,to medium high.

Add the shallots, and hot peppers.

Sauté the shallots and pepper until they start fading to translucence and their edges begin to caramelize.

Clear a space in the middle of the pan by moving the shallots and peppers to the sides. Add the garlic to the open space. Let it sauté in the middle until it starts to become fragrant. Then mix it in with the rest.

Add half of the peas, the honey, and the salt and pepper to the pan. Cook until the peas are just barely finished. Not more than 5 minutes. This is important, as overcooking will ruin the bright color of the sauce, and make the dish much less appetizing.

Once the peas are ready, remove from the heat, add 1/4 of the chopped mint leaves, and stir in.

Pour the contents of the pan into a food processor, and purée until you have a smooth thin paste. You can add a little bit of olive oil or water to get the consistency right.

Wipe the pan of any excess pieces that might burn as you reheat it for the cheese. Add the remaining oil and butter, and heat the pan on high, until the butter and oil is about to smoke. Then, add the cheese.

Fry each side of the cheese until golden.

Add the remaining peas, and as much of the sauce as is necessary to coat the cheese. If you are having trouble tossing the cheese evenly because the sauce is too thick add a little olive oil or water one teaspoon at a time. Once the cheese is coated, remove from the heat, add the remaining mint leaves, and grated parmigiano, and toss.

Serve immediately.

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2 Responses to “Marco Polo’s Delight”

  1. Janina Says:

    THIS WAS DELICIOUS. Thanks for making it for us ❤

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