I eat my peas with honey.
I’ve done it all my life.
It makes the peas taste funny.
But it keeps them on my knife.
They’re at the markets now — but just barely. It all happens in June, the garden peas have made their tendrilled trip from vine to grocer’s stall and are waiting there for anxious foodies to eagerly snap up. But don’t wait too long. These succulent local veggies have a very short shelf life — in fact, I’d say that, if you can, take them directly from garden to table, since the longer they sit around after picking, the more their sugar turns to starch.
The arrival of the peas always seems to me like the true harbinger of summer. We see the peas and we know that the season of idleness stretches ahead. We dream of long weekends. Summer nights, sitting on the dock with a glass of white wine, overlooking a cool northern lake. Or, lounging on a downtown patio, gazing at the urban parade. Or, a simple Sunday supper ending with a decadent, drippy strawberry shortcake. Or, maybe, just a warm, lazy afternoon spent reading on a breezy balcony. Whatever — it’s the season to “carpe diem”, but also to eagerly seize all of the wonderful local vegetables that are now appearing in our markets.
The humble pea is a simple but elegant legume that has been nourishing humankind for thousands of years. In the distant past, peas were mostly cooked with grains in porridges or ground into flour for bread. What we now consider to be “field peas” were dried and used in soups. It was in early 17th century Holland (that era when “bourgeois comfort” really began) that garden varieties with sweeter flavour were developed by breeders and became popular to eat on their own. The new vegetable caught on at the French court, and then spread to England where peas became wildly fashionable. In North America, gentleman farmers such as Thomas Jefferson, introduced the vegetables in the 18th century. When freezing and canning vegetables became popular, peas became one of the staples of the modern family’s larder.
I believe that the curse of the frozen pea has blunted our appreciation of the fresh vegetable. Frozen peas have their place, of course — in stews or ragouts, cooked in the winter months when anything green adds vivacity to the plate. And please, don’t even mention a culinary atrocity called “Mushy Peas.” Some dear British friends served them to us once, insisting that they were the only possible accompaniment to fish and chips. On consulting Mr. Google, I now find that they aren’t REAL peas at all but something called “marrowfat peas.” I don’t believe that I shall ever seek them out.
What I think of as the real thing are the tender, rounded peas that fill pods. There are two categories, the younger, smaller and more tender ones(petit pois) and the larger, plumper and, perhaps, tastier variety. These are usually shucked before cooking or eating. But I would also include peas that allow you to eat the pods as well. Called by the French mangetouts, these varieties include that favorite of stir fries, the snow pea and sugar peas, or, as they are usually called sugar snap peas.
Anyway, the best way to eat fresh peas is simply to shuck them, blanch them in boiling, salted water (4 – 8 minutes, depending upon the size of the peas), drain and serve with salt and pepper and butter. If you like something more elegant, Julia Child has a wonderful recipe for cooking peas, French style, with lettuce and onions. But the following recipe is one that I have used for many years and I have no idea where it came from. It takes good advantage of lots of local vegetables and tastes wonderful.
2 medium leeks (white and pale green parts), rinsed well and chopped
2 tbsp. unsalted butter
1 cup chicken broth
1 cup whipping cream
1/4 cup water
2 cups shelled fresh peas
1/2 lb snow peas, trimmed and halved lengthwise
1 1/2 tsp. kosher salt
1 1b dried fettucine nests
1/2 cup chopped flat-leaf parsley
2 tsp. lemon zest, finely grated
1/2 cup finely grated parmesan cheese
1) Cook leeks in butter stirring, until tender (about 5 minutes).
2) Add broth, cream and water and simmer, uncovered, about 5 minutes.
3) Stir shelled peas into sauce and simmer 3 minutes.
4) Stir in snow peas, salt and pepper and simmer until tender (about 5 minutes).
5) Cook pasta in boiling salted water. Drain and add to sauce.
6) Sprinkle with parsley, lemon zest and parmesan and toss again. Season with salt and pepper.
This supposedly serves 6 as a main course — but it’s so good, I would say serves 4, just to be safe. Sometimes I add chopped, cooked ham or cooked asparagus, just for variety. If you have a problem with high cholesterol, I wouldn’t eat it too often. (Just sayin’…)