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Eat your peas!

Wed Apr 2, 2008

English peas, asparagus and basil

Piselli con Asparagi e Basilco

Nature has put on her Technicolor dreamcoat and cast a verdant spell across California’s brown hills. Last weekend I found some gorgeous wild fennel tucked in amongst the daisies and sage in Runyon Canyon, it’s bright green fronds fanning the smaller plants in the breeze. I didn’t pick any, but fully intend to go back with a bag and a little gardening shovel to pluck out a licorice-scented bulb or two. I’ve also been on the lookout for ramps, the garlicky wild leeks prized by chefs; they’re bound to start popping up soon. Though, since there growing season is so short and the flavor so sought-after, I doubt any will remain in the ground long enough for me to find and pick. I’ll just have to watch restaurant menus to get a bite while I can.

The farmers market is awash in green, too. Fava tendrils hint at the broad beans to come, graceful, tender asparagus line stall after stall like crowned guards and snap peas and English peas pour out of baskets, crisp pods beckoning like the Jolly Green Giant’s fingers.

What? You don’t like peas? Chronically overcooked and often served to most of us either from a can or the freezer, peas have one of the worst reputations in the vegetable world (just behind Brussels sprouts, I think). But a fresh English pea is anything but mushy, grey or flavorless. A recently shelled pea pops in your mouth like fine caviar, exploding with sweetness. But peas start converting their natural sugars to starch the moment they’re picked. So the longer they travel from garden (or farm) to your table, the less appetizing they’ll be.

If you’ve got a black-and-blue thumb like me, the trick is to find English peas, also known as the common garden pea, at the farmers market, where you know they’ll be their freshest. Buy them in their pods, which should be unblemished and emerald-colored. If you can, crack one open and eat a pea or two, they should be glossy, crisp and sweet. If you don’t plan to use them right away, keep them stored in the refrigerator in a plastic bag for no more than three days.

Shelling peas is easy and surprisingly relaxing. After rinsing the peas in cold water, sit down with a bowl for pods, a bowl for peas and a bowl or bag to discard the spent shells. Snap the end drawing the string down the length of the pea like a zipper. Then, just run your finger through the inside of the pod, dislodging the peas inside. I love the plink-plink-plink sound as the first peas hit the empty bowl. Every now and then eat one straight from the pod.

Now what to do with those peas? Enjoy them raw or lightly sautéed with mint or tarragon. Puree them into a delightfully bright soup. Or, try this super-simple recipe for Piselli con Asparagi e Basilco (peas, asparagus and basil) from the April issue of Gourmet. It was a hit in my house on Easter, incorporated another springtime gem, asparagus, and is sure to win some converts at yours, too!

Piselli con Asparagi e Basilco

¼ c finely chopped shallots
3 tbsp unsalted butter
2 lbs asparagus, trimmed and cut into 1-inch pieces
¾ lb freshly shelled peas (1 ¾ lbs in pods)
½ tsp fine sea salt
handful torn basil leaves

Melt butter in a skillet and sauté shallots over medium heat until just tender, about four minutes. Stir in asparagus, peas, salt and a little fresh-ground pepper, the cover the skillet with foil. Cook over medium heat until vegetables are warm but still al dente, about eight minutes. Stir in basil and sea salt to taste.

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7 Responses to “Eat your peas!”

  1. JennDZ_The LeftoverQueen Says:

    Oh happy spring! 🙂

    I wanted to officially welcome you to The Foodie Blogroll! 🙂

  2. Brooke Says:

    And thanks for sharing that glorious recipe! It was so good on Easter, I’ve been wanting to recreate it ever since!

  3. Jen (Modern Beet) Says:

    I actually made a version of this just last night (with peas from my garden! yum), but I put the mixture on a puff pastry shell with some ricotta — delicious!

    I’m intrigued by your wild fennel foraging! Did you have any luck finding ramps?

  4. Leah Says:

    No luck with ramps yet. And I found out there’s a major fine for picking the fennel at Runyon. Oops! Your version of the dish sounds delish! I’ll have to come by your site to check it out.

  5. White On Rice Couple Says:

    Ditto on your analogy of English peas to fine caviar! We can’t seem to get enough of these peas lately, just had some English pea filled ravioli’s at an event last weekend and it’s been a staple in our fridge for the last month.
    So sad that brussels sprouts have a bad rap, they’re one of my favorites!

  6. Gift Guru Says:

    Loved this recipe. I highly recommend it. A great combination of flavors and with the fresh asparagus it is delish!!! Thanks so much.

  7. @ the Farmers Market: Peas, Shoots and... | SpicySaltySweet Says:

    […] Piselli con Asparagi e Basilico from these pages (and Gourmet) […]

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