Cooking from the Farms: English Shelling Peas

The old black Border Collie was not in her usual spot near Heron Pond’s parking area, in fact she was nowhere to be seen.  Too bad.  Over the past three weeks I have gotten used to watching her lift her head from resting position to give one short, sharp welcome bark as I step out of my car to head over to the farm’s stand.  My kind of greeting.

What a beautiful day it was today, with the sun shining, a light breeze, and temperatures in the 70s. Heron Pond’s Farmer Greg commented on the onset of summer in the week’s CSA update: “…the weather of late will change the scene very soon. Zucchini and summer squash will just miss making it onto this week’s list but will certainly be in the following week. New potatoes and cucumbers are coming on fast and green beans will be earlier than in recent years.”  I love when summer gets rolling and the crops start pouring in.

But they’re not quite ready yet, I’m reminded, and as if to keep me grounded in reality, this week’s share held once again a few more of the early crops.  I have my lettuce and tomato and another bunch of beets.  But change is creeping in, if a little slowly for my liking, and along with the usual suspects there are a few more than usual choices for me to make on the spot.  Scapes or scallions; Chinese cabbage, escarole, kohlrabi, or bok choy; snap peas or English shelling peas.  Snap decisions are rarely easy for me to make (okay, I’ll go with the scallions) and I often second-guess my final decision (all right, it’s the bok choy this time, but I’m sure the kohlrabi was also calling to me from its bin).  Sometimes it comes down to whim, to the slenderness of the onions or the round green fan of the bok choy’s leaves, to closing one’s eyes and grabbing what comes to hand.

Between English peas and snap peas, though, there is no contest and no prevaricating and no looking back.  I’ll take the shelling pea every time.

Sweet and crisp and delicate, fresh peas delight me.  I grew up with dried peas at every  Sunday dinner, the legumes soaked overnight on Saturday and cooked the next day at a rolling boil until they reached a lovely shade of fatigue.  My mother called these “Scotch peas” and served them buttered, alongside roast beef, Yorkshire pudding, and Colman’s mustard.  Scotch peas will be the hardest, most toothsome and grittiest pea you will ever taste, I guarantee.  Even after soaking and cooking, these peas, if shot from a pea shooter, would take out an eye.

Fresh peas, by contrast, make some of the silkiest flans and soups and even ice cream I have ever tasted; there’s nothing gritty or grainy or grey-green about them. Pureed June peas lend both sweetness and the pale green color of a very young moss to all of these dishes.  Left whole and simply blanched, they lend brightness and cheer when stirred into risottos or tossed in salads dressed in buttermilk.

What, though, to do with my peas?  I had no idea.

Part of what had me stymied today was that had I promised quesadillas with the works – homemade tomato and black bean salsas and guacamole – for supper.  I couldn’t make peas and quesadillas work together.  Yes, I could stir peas into some steamed rice but that seemed like a default recipe.  Default is not fitting for the season’s first peas.  Which leads me to the other part of my problem:  the pressure was on to celebrate peas, to give them their due.

While I was working on these very problems, typing and making notes and deleting what I had written, my son came down the stairs from his room.  He took to the pile of peas without being asked and had them shelled in a matter of moments.

“You know what would taste good?” he said to me as he ran his hand through the peas in the colander.

“What?” I asked, not taking my eyes off the computer screen.

“Making these peas into something like refried beans to go with the quesadillas.”

I looked over at him.  Refried beans but made with peas.  The little genius.  Now why didn’t I think of that?

“That’s a great idea,” I told him, and I meant it.  It is a great idea.

Actually I’m actually glad I didn’t think of it.  Cooking from our farms should be a family effort; involvement is what the CSA experience is all about.  Being involved is how we learn to use and love our food.

Summer Peas, Refried Bean-style

You’ll be surprised how the hint of garlic enhances rather than masks the pea sweetness.  Because you don’t cook these very long, the peas stay bright green and fresh tasting.  Try it with fish as well; it would be a beautiful accompaniment to salmon.

1 garlic cloves, smashed slightly

2 teaspoons vegetable oil

1 rounded cup of fresh shelled peas

1/4  to ½  cup cooking water from the peas

1 Tbsp. chopped fresh cilantro (optional)

Blanch the peas for 3 minutes in plenty of unsalted boiling water.  At the end of 3 minutes, reserve ½ cup of the cooking liquid, then drain the peas.  Set aside.

Cook the garlic in oil in a skillet over moderate heat, stirring, until the clove turns golden and the oil has been infused.  Remove the clove and add the peas.  Stir, and begin mashing the peas with a potato masher or the back of a wooden spoon.

Gradually add cooking water a little at a time until you have a coarse purée.

Continue to cook, stirring occasionally, until mixture is hot and no longer soupy. Add salt and a squirt of lemon juice to taste.  Serve warm, sprinkled with cilantro if desired.

©2010 Jane Ward