Peas, please

Petits pois - 2013-090

Photo by fred_v [Frédérique Voisin-Demery] via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license (CC BY 2.0)

J and I went on a bit of a pea binge recently, with the little green gems prominently featured in two of three dishes that we consumed over the course of several meals last week. (We didn’t set out to celebrate peas quite so fervently, but sometimes our meal planning can be a bit haphazard.)

I learned from an episode of Fresh Air awhile back that the chefs at America’s Test Kitchen and Cook’s Illustrated generally do as we do at our house, i.e., use frozen peas:

[Bridget] Lancaster says if you’re making pea soup, don’t bother with the fresh stuff — they’re a pain to peel, and they might not be in season.

“[Frozen peas] are actually picked at the most fresh point,” she says. “And somebody else has done all the work [of peeling] for you. And they’re great, especially if you’re using them as an ingredient in a stew. The key is to add them almost as an herb right at the end, and to let them sit in the soup or a risotto for just five minutes to warm them up.”

Other people—specifically, some French folk—are apparently not only willing to peel the pod from the pea, but actually peel the tiny little peas themselves! Elaine Sciolino’s recent “Letter from Paris” in The New York Times details her exploration of Provençal peas:

In France, January signals the arrival of endives, cardoons (artichoke thistles) and root vegetables like rutabaga, beets and topinambours (Jerusalem artichokes). March and April bring spring: petits pois [peas], asparagus and Gariguettes, the small, shiny, old-fashioned first strawberry of the year. The best tomatoes come in June, July and August.

In the L’Oustau garden, long rows of pea vines heavy with pods awaited picking. In the kitchen, the chef Sylvestre Wahid set a shallow, oblong, pea-filled wicker basket on a table and offered a tutorial.

I learned that the smaller the pea, the sweeter and more tender they are; that fat, stuffed pods can mean that the peas have become tough and mealy and past their prime; that one way to test the freshness of peas is to press down on a pod and gently move around the peas inside. (Fresh peas will squeak when they are rubbed together.)

For the enjoyable full piece, head here. And check out Lynne Rossetto Kasper’s conversation with the Scolino at The Splendid Table website for tidbits like this one, which I alluded to above:

[The chefs at L’Oustau de Baumanière] showed me how you can skin a pea. Never in my life did I think about skinning a pea, but it is a very sensual experience. You take a pea that has been plunged into boiling water then plunged into ice water, it comes out, and you take the pea between your thumb and your index finger, and you roll it around slowly and the skin pops out and the pea splits in half. You have this beautiful, skinless, naked pea. It’s not something that you want to do if you have guests coming in a half-hour, but if you are watching “Mad Men” or something, it’s the perfect time to sit there with a bowl and skin peas.

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