Spring's little green garden peas were nearly done in by the tin can. Their unfortunate incarceration rendered them drab, mush and bleak. They tasted of the tinny can, if anything at all. Brilliant, beautiful, garden peas deserve better.
Behold fresh peas straight from the pod: emerald green and tender, yet with a gentle crunch. They taste sweet, green and grassy, with hints of garden soil (in a good way). However, they are vulnerable and have no patience; their sugars quickly regress to starch from the moment they are picked. No spring vegetable is more delightful when fresh and more disappointing when not. As Winston Churchill recalled, "We lived very simply — but with all the essentials of life well understood and provided for — hot baths, cold champagne, new peas and old brandy."
Perhaps the best recipe for garden peas is really no recipe at all, but more of a procedure. Go to a garden, position yourself at the start of a ready row of peas, pluck a pod from the vine, open it, spill the peas into your mouth, pitch the pod over your shoulder and enjoy the feast. Repeat to the end of the row.
Little round peas have numerous names: green peas, sweet peas, spring peas, English peas, petit pois and garden peas. Each name tells part of their story. They are green, the good ones are sweet, they come up in the spring, many varieties hailed from England and France, and at one time they were grown only in kitchen gardens (as opposed to field peas grown among crops in the field). Humans have cultivated peas for at least 12,000 years, making them one of the earliest crops, but it was centuries before gardeners developed peas that could be eaten fresh instead of only dried.
Garden peas were once so expensive and dear that only royalty and the very wealthy could enjoy them. In the late 17th century, eating freshly shelled peas was a daring food craze in the court of King Louis XIV, where the elite popped them like pills and nibbled them as candy. "This subject of peas continues to absorb all others, the anxiety to eat them, the pleasure of having eaten them and the desire to eat them again," Madame de Maintenon, wife of Louis XIV, wrote in 1696. "It is both a fashion and a madness."
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Thomas Jefferson was similarly smitten by green garden peas, having discovered them during his time in France. He's reported to have cataloged at least 50 varieties and grown at least 30 at Monticello. Jefferson's meticulous records and correspondence reveal that he competed with fellow growers as to who could serve the first bowl of peas each spring, sometimes letting his competitors believe they had won just to keep the game interesting.
Our lesson is that we must eat fresh peas in their seasonal prime, which is fleeting and rare. Even now, only 5 percent of all peas are sold and eaten fresh. The consolation prize is frozen peas. Few vegetables are more amenable to freezing. If frozen quickly after harvest, before they have a chance to decline, garden peas are able to retain all their color and nutritional value, most of their flavor and much of their texture. When freshly picked and shelled peas aren't available, frozen baby peas are almost always superior to so-called fresh peas that are several days old.
It's springtime. Give peas a chance.
Recipe: Chilled Garden Pea And Mint Soup
I created this soup to serve warm, and it was pretty good. The next day when I pulled the leftover soup out of the refrigerator to reheat, I licked a little cold soup off the spoon. What an improvement. The chilly overnight rest mingled the flavors. The brightness of the peas really came through, and the mint mellowed into a hint rather than a punch. The soup held its lovely emerald green color. Voila, a chilled soup was born.
1 cup chopped spring onions or baby leeks (white and tender green parts)
3 cups chicken or light-colored vegetable stock
4 cups freshly shelled garden peas (from about 4 pounds of pods) or frozen peas
1/2 cup half-and-half
3/4 cup lightly packed fresh mint leaves
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
Sour cream, for garnish
In a large saucepan, melt the butter over medium heat. Stir in the onions and a pinch of salt and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened, about 5 minutes. Add the stock and bring to a simmer. Add the peas and cook until they are barely tender, 5 to 8 minutes. Stir in the half-and-half, mint, salt, sugar and pepper and warm through.
Puree the soup in a blender (working in batches to not fill the blender more than half full) and return it to the pot, or puree it directly in the pot with an immersion blender.
Cool to room temperature, cover and refrigerate until well-chilled, at least 4 hours and preferably overnight. Stir well, check the seasoning and serve chilled, garnished with a dollop of sour cream.
Recipe: Peas And Parmesan Dip
It's a dip for potato chips. It's a topping for crostini. It's a side dish to serve with garlicky lamb or glazed ham. In any guise, it's a bowl of bright green goodness. This dish needs a little lemon juice, but don't add it until right before serving because the acidity quickly dulls the bright green color. When serving this as a crostini topping, I like to spread the bread with a little fresh ricotta cheese or quark before spooning on the pea mixture. The delicate, creamy sweetness of the cheese is delicious with the citrusy peas.
1/2 cup lightly packed freshly grated Parmesan cheese, divided
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
In a small saucepan, simmer the peas and stock over medium heat until the peas are barely tender, 3 to 5 minutes. Use a slotted spoon to transfer the peas to the bowl of a food processor fitted with the metal blade and pulse to crush the peas, adding a little of the cooking liquid if needed to get them moving.
Add the garlic, zest, oil and 6 tablespoons of the Parmesan and pulse until the mixture is fairly smooth, but not pureed. It should be thick enough to serve as dip or eat with a fork. Add a little more cooking liquid or oil if needed. Season with salt and pepper. Transfer into a serving bowl.
Just before serving, stir in the lemon juice and sprinkle the remaining 2 tablespoons of Parmesan over the top. Serve at room temperature.
Recipe: Risi E Bisi (Rice And Peas)
This is a revered classic Venetian recipe that dates back to the days of the Doges, when it was prepared only on spring feast days. Even now, the dish tastes best when made with freshly picked and shelled spring garden peas, preserving its status as celebration fare. To stay true to its Venetian roots, try to find Vialone Nana rice, a variety from Venice, although regular Arborio and carnaroli are good, too.
This simple yet sublime combination of rice and peas has Southern roots as well. During the formation of rice plantations in the Low Country sea islands of South Carolina and Georgia, Venetian rice farmers were brought in to design and manage the canals that irrigated the rice fields. Although many cultures contributed to the melting pot that would evolve into Southern cuisine, it's not hard to imagine that the Venetians brought along their penchant for mixing rice with legumes, a practice perfected in the classic Southern melting pot dish known as Hoppin' John. The rice they grew was named Carolina Gold and is still available in some stores and online.
When served, risi e bisi is brothy enough to warrant a spoon, landing it somewhere between Italian risotto or Southern purloo and a hearty soup. As is typical of much Italian and Southern home cooking, there are nearly as many techniques for making this dish as there are cooks. This is mine, although I often omit the ham.
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
In a medium saucepan, bring the stock to a very gentle simmer in. Drop in the thyme sprig and bay leaf. Keep warm over low heat.
In a large saucepan, melt the butter over medium heat. Add the onion and cook until softened, about 8 minutes. Stir in the pancetta and cook, stirring, until lightly browned, about 3 minutes. Add the rice and stir until each grain is coated and a little shiny, about 2 minutes.
Add 1 cup of the warm stock. Cook, stirring continuously, until the rice absorbs the stock. Continue adding stock in 1-cup increments, stirring continuously and waiting until the rice absorbs each addition before adding the next. After the third addition of stock, stir in the peas. As the rice cooks and swells, it will absorb the stock more slowly.
Continue adding stock and stirring until the rice is al dente and bathed in a little soupy broth. The entire process should take 20 to 25 minutes. You might have a little stock left over, but it is better for the dish to be a little too soupy than too dry. Discard the thyme and bay leaf.
Remove the pan from the heat. Stir in the olive oil, Parmesan and parsley. Season with salt and pepper and serve at once.