Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Peas: Paean and Pleasures

It’s the simmery, bee-droning season to take a child by the hand and toddle out to the garden and show him peas, fresh and plump-podded, and how to pull one off the vine and how to unzip it, to show him the tender pale peas all crowded into their pod-cradle, how to eat one, to watch his eyes grow wide, his fat little fingers grow grabby. And then to pick him up, if he’s small enough, to prevent him – in his sudden, scrambling enthusiasm – from pulling the shallow-rooted vines out of their dirt.

Lysander, who’s one and a half years old, is coming to visit this weekend and I hope at least a few peas have filled out their pods enough to taste. And I hope that the black-caps – wild black raspberries – have enjoyed our recent hot and humid and sunny days, and not been discouraged by today’s coolness, enough to have – at least a few – turned dark and sweet enough for him to enjoy. Strawberries still ripen in their small patch, so surely he’ll be in time for the last of those.

These are events, involving gardens and tastes, and who knows what else, that children remember all their lives, if not as detailed memories then as sensory mysteries associated with the food. Lysander’s older friend, Jarett, still looks for cherry tomatoes at my house, no matter the season, for on our first meeting we toddled out to the garden and feasted on them. “Let’s take a look around the garden,” he’d say in November, reaching for my hand. “Let’s find us a few of those little baby ‘matoes.” He’s eight now, though, so last time he was here we sampled cilantro, chard, and a little bulb from the top of an Egyptian onion. He found them “interesting”.

You have a million of those sensory memories of your own, of course, as do I. Wandering down to the swamp’s edge to pick huckleberries with Grandma – how fast that old lady (fifty if a day) could tuck up her skirts and how wide her stride as she fled toward home from a snake slithering through the undergrowth. Galloping on my own after her I felt the limits of her love. Or following my piano teacher and sometime babysitter, Mrs. Minshell, along the paths of her strawberry plants, she telling me to keep between the rows, not to step on the strawberries or even to pick one yet, and then, “And I’ll know if you do, because I have eyes in the back of my head!”

“You do?” I said, wonderingly.

You don’t have to be a child to form these sensory memories. Once, long ago, my friend Carol spent a good long hour or so of a community lawn sale sitting on my front stoop shelling peas from her own garden into a big green bowl. Plink, plink, they went, slowly covering the bottom of the bowl. She’s never going to fill that bowl, I thought. But steadily she worked, and steadily the emptied pods towered beside her; slowly the peas mounted in the bowl. That night she served them simply steamed in a lettuce leaf, a pad of sweet butter topping them, salt and pepper, in that same green bowl. The bowl was at most half full. It was a beautiful sight, the peas delicious, and my realization, that something as precious as fresh peas should never overflow, one I’ve never forgotten.

That memory reminds me of M.F.K. Fisher’s paean to peas in An Alphabet for Gourmets, when she recalls a difficult feast enjoyed with family and friends over a campfire on a Swiss mountainside where she and her husband were building a house. I rummage on my bookshelves and settle down to read the passage. “...what really mattered, what piped the high unforgettable tune of perfection were the peas, which came from their hot pot onto our thick china plates in a cloud, a kind of miasma, of everything that anyone could ever want from them, even in a dream. I recalled the three basic requisites, according to Fanny Farmer and Escoffier [they must be very green, they must be freshly gathered, and they must be shelled at the very last second of the very last minute], and again I recalled Sidney Smith, who once said that his idea of Heaven (and he was a cleric!) was pate’ de foie gras to the sound of trumpets. Mine, that night and this night, too, is fresh green garden peas, picked and shelled by my friends, to the sound of a cowbell.”

Peas are so... so perfect, so round, so green, so sweet, so rare, so... labor intensive but so worth it. I grow Petit Pois, the French strain developed for small, tender, tasty peas crowded into small pods. We eat them mostly out of hand, wandering out to the garden several times a day, picking a handful, then sitting in the hammock and podding them, tossing the pods into the compost pile, and eating the peas one by one. That’s on the best of days, admittedly. Sometimes I use the sprouts, blossoms, and tendrils in sandwiches or as a garnish in salads, or the pretty white buds on beets.

I flip through my library and find that Thomas Jefferson planted nineteen varieties of peas. I think it’s no wonder, for he was a passionate man. A friend of Jefferson’s said that for dinner on Sunday you must cook the peas on Wednesday with a large amount of butter and then cook them in more butter each day until Sunday when they would have absorbed their own weight in butter. I think what a waste of good peas! Might’s well just eat the butter.

I find that if you’re English you boil them, if you’re French you cook them in butter in a pot lined with lettuce leaves, with a sprig or two of mint added. They can be creamed with new potatoes, small onions and baby carrots. In Apulia you pour some olive oil in the bottom of an earthenware pot, put in the washed peas ‘wet’, add salt, a sliced new onion and some leaves of mint. Perhaps you would use them as a dressing for pasta, and often one or two hot chilli peppers go into the pot with the sliced onion. This is according to Patience Gray in one of my favorite books, Honey From a Weed.

William Woys Weaver writes, “in the days before we shipped hither and yon, rich folks raised these little-bitty varieties in greenhouses as a winter luxury.” Indeed, people became quite crazy about them back in the seventeenth century. In 1692 A lady named Madame de Maintenon, wrote in a letter to the Cardinal of Noailles, “The question of peas continues. The anticipation of eating them, the pleasures of having eaten them, and the joy of eating them again are three subjects that our Princes have been discussing for four days… It has become a fashion indeed, a passion and a life style issue.” I find an adaption of that quote on the web, and I doubt that the term “life style issue” was au courant in 1692. The rest is correct, though.

I’m disappointed to see that the sorely missed Laurie Colwin does not mention peas in any indexable way, nor does James Beard in any memorable way; and Edouard de Pomiane, writing in the 1930s, has this to say about Buying Local: “Young peas, freshly picked, have a wonderful flavour and scent, but after a long journey in a confined space they lose nearly all their charm. This applies in greater or less degree to all vegetables. They should be bought fresh and prepared immediately.” He was referring to peas grown in Morocco for the Paris market, which puzzles me. But he goes on to detail peas cooked in lettuce leaves with butter, and then peas sauced with double cream, which sounds quite nice to me, and finishes with peas and new carrots cooked together. Nothing earth shattering.

But Camille Glenn, in The Heritage of Southern Cooking, writes, “If I were asked to name the greatest fresh vegetable dish in the whole wide world, I believe it would have to be Fresh Green Pea Pie... It has a succulence, flavor, freshness, elegance, and charm – and one doesn’t meet it every day.”

This is Glenn’s technique. Cook 3 cups of shelled peas with sugar and salt in boiling water until tender; drain. Add four ounces butter, chopped parsley, salt, and white pepper. Toss gently to absorb butter, adding more as needed for a soupy sauce. Pour into pie tin lined with flaky butter-crust dough; top with dough. Brush with cream; bake until golden. Serve warm.

And then, the strangest recipe of all, for Medieval Pea Soup with Ginger, Saffron & Almonds, pops out at me. It was adapted from the 14th century chef Taillevent, by James Peterson in his Splendid Soups: Sweat onion and ginger in butter. Add blanched peas, roasted blanched almonds and chicken broth. Bring to a simmer and cook a few minutes. Puree, then press through a food mill. Thin with broth and season with saffron soaked in water and a little almond extract. Yum. Though the poor tender subtle pea may get lost in this mélange without an expert touch.

It seems that my pea column is ending. I head out to the garden and find that, indeed, Lysander shall have his peas this weekend. I am pleased.

While I’m in the garden I gather the makings for A Garden Sandwich:

Take two slices of good bread. Butter one slice and mayo the other. Lay slices of crisp, fresh radish on the buttered side. Sprinkle with sea salt. Lay thin slices of tomato (if you have it) upon the radish. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Strew with sliced shallots or green onions, or green rounds of Egyptian onions. Smother with a mound of mixed fresh lettuce and herbs — I like lettuce, arugula and a few fronds of cilantro. Cover with the mayo'd bread and eat it on a shady porch with fresh lemonade or hot green tea. Carnivores could sprinkle the tomato layer with crumbled bacon, but not too much. It doesn't need it.

I take my summer sandwich and sit on the porch, waiting for Lysander.

This Twice Bitten Column appeared in the Rutland (Vermont) herald on July 3, 2007

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