This week at la Domestique we celebrate spring peas. In Chez Panisse Vegetables, Alice Waters writes, “The arrival of freshly picked green peas is one of the events that define high spring at Chez Panisse.” I remember sowing peas in my community garden plot last year and building the trellis, forcing wooden stakes into the hard, dry Colorado soil. Watching the peas grow was such a miracle, their dainty tendrils reaching out to grasp the trellis, winding around and around, encircling the netting. Each day they seemed to double in size, climbing further towards the sky, green leaves displayed proudly, soaking up the sun’s rays. Then there were delicate white flowers, shivering in the Colorado breeze. The next morning I had to do a double take when- could it have been overnight?- I found a bounty of two-inch-long pea pods dangling under the flowers. The trick in harvesting peas is allowing them to ripen and fill their pods comfortably, but making sure you get them before the birds do. It always seems that the opportunists know the perfect moment of ripeness and manage to beat the gardener to it by a few painful minutes.
Peas thrive in the cool rainy climate of spring, and their short growing season is brought to an abrupt halt by just a couple hot summer days. In rebuke of the summer heat, pea pods turn tough and the sugars inside the pea are converted to tasteless starch. So get the plants going as early as possible (February/March) and enjoy the bounty while it lasts. If you don’t have a garden, fresh peas are best sought after at the farmer’s market and not the grocery store, since they begin to deteriorate moments after the harvest, rapidly converting their succulent sugars to starch and drying out. Look for pea pods that are brilliant green, glossy, and firm. According to Alice Waters, the freshest pods will squeak when rubbed together. Flaccid pale green or yellow pods are apt to disappoint, so don’t be tempted to take them home. Also, pass over especially large and bulging pods, they are overripe and no longer resemble their younger, sweeter, more delicate selves.
Fresh peas can be stored in a plastic bag in the refrigerator for a couple of days and shelled just prior to cooking. If you see the whispy pea shoots for sale at the market, snatch these sweet treats up and toss them in a salad or use them to garnish soup within a day. Here at la Domestique, we’ll be cooking with the shelling peas all week. To quote The Produce Bible, “Shelling peas is surely one of the most therapeutic of all kitchen chores.” Simply use your thumbnail to split the pod open along the seam, and with a gentle coaxing, the peas eagerly pop out of the pod into a bowl. Fresh spring peas are juicy and tender, with a lively, sweet flavor. If fresh peas are not available, frozen peas can be used in all the recipes this week at la Domestique. A frozen pea is more than adequate, nothing to scowl at, sweet and vibrantly green- predictably perfect. Reading Nigel Slater’s book, Tender, I came across the sentiment that, “The frozen pea is a testament to uniformity and reliability. Pity it so lacks romance.” Let this be reason not to miss out on the short season of fresh peas. Stimulate your senses with the touch of a velvety pea pod, the burst of sweet juice from a tiny pea, and the fresh flavor of delicate pea shoots in spring salads. Take the time to seek out this prize and savor fresh peas in the kitchen. When the season is over, frozen peas are still a delicious replacement.
Visit la Domestique tomorrow for 10 Ways Tuesday to find creative recipes for cooking with fresh (or frozen) peas.