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Wednesday, May 13, 2009 01:03 am

Give peas a chance

Respecting the rest of the pea

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I’ve always loved peas. Those frozen peas available in grocery stores aren’t terrible. But they can’t begin to compare with new baby peas, tiny marbles of sweetness that are called English peas or Petit Pois (probably, respectively, by the English and French) that have just been harvested, untouched by machinery or processing that — however slightly — changes their taste. They are one of the glories of spring.

Growing up on a produce farm, when peas were in season, I ate them every day. And I helped pick, shell and bag bushels of them for the freezer.

The peas appeared on our nightly dinner table, dressed always with a bit of browned butter (beurre noisette, a.k.a. nutty butter) into which the peas’ cooking liquid was poured. Then the mixture was reduced just until it had become a glaze or light sauce.

That was my grandmother’s standard treatment of many, if not most, of the vegetables that came into her kitchen, from peas and new potatoes in the spring, to corn and lima beans later in the season. It was one of the things that made her cooking a cut above the norms of the day. Browning caramelized the residual milk solids in the butter, which adds a wonderful depth of flavor — even if only a small amount is used; it’s a wonderful way to get an “extra mile’s” worth of taste from a bit of fat.

Good as those barely cooked peas in brown butter were, however, what I loved best — and still love best — is eating them raw.

Sitting around the kitchen table with a mountain of pea pods in the center, shelling them into metal pie tins, I’d gobble the peas by the handful, not infrequently getting into trouble for doing so. To me they were far more addictive than potato chips or fries.

Then there were the pods, which I loved at least as much as the peas themselves. Edible snow or snap pea pods were unheard of in central Illinois in those days, except as an unfamiliar ingredient in Chinese restaurants. Standing up to straighten my back after unending bending and picking over the pea plants, I’d open a couple of pods, eat the peas, snap off the stems and strings, and chew the pods until the flavor was gone and there was just a “cud” of fibers; then I’d spit them out, and start the whole process over again. It was better than any chewing gum I ever had.

These days, of course, snow peas and sugar snap peas can be found in groceries year-round. But there are more edible pea parts that are coming into popular use. They are the pea tendrils — also known as pea shoots, or vines, or leaves. Used for centuries in Chinese cuisine, they have begun “crossing the culinary line,” according to Elizabeth Schneider, author of Vegetables from Amaranth to Zucchini.

Though they’ve been found almost exclusively in Asian markets here in the U.S. for decades, Schneider notes that “There’s nothing new under the sun: John Evelyn recommended ‘The Pod of the Sugarpease, when first beginning to appear, with the Husk and Tendrils’” in 1699 for use in a salad.

Another newcomer to these shores are pea sprouts, “the very first stem-and-leaf pairs the pea seed forms,” which similarly used to be found only in Asian markets.

The shoots/tendrils are the leafy tips of young sugar/snow peas or regular peas. They are especially attractive with their twining, curling tendrils. The sprouts have all the crunchiness of other sprouts. Both the shoots and tendrils have that delicious raw pea taste. I look for them every spring.

Asians primarily use pea shoots/tendrils in stir-fries, steamed, or whisked into soups. True to my lifelong raw pea obsession, however, I like them (and those pea sprouts) best in salads and other uncooked dishes. This salad is one of my favorites, combining three of the most iconic greens of spring — peas, asparagus and new spinach — into a delectable salad that can be used as a side dish, but is substantial enough to be a dinner’s main event.

This recipe is not only tasty, but also a visual delight, and is designed to feed a group. If, however, you’re only feeding a few, it can easily be cut down. Just use about a cup of spinach, and a half cup (these don’t have to be precise measurements) per person, as well as half a hard-boiled egg (although a whole egg per person wouldn’t be inappropriate if making this a main course salad). Figure on about one fourth of a pound of asparagus per person, although that can also be modified by your individual asparagus lust and the place the salad will have in your meal. If I’m making this for four, I’ll probably still put it on a round platter, but if there are only two of us, I’ll use individual oval plates.

The dressing is one I make frequently, not just for this salad, but also for spinach salads with bacon and blue cheese, and countless others. There are many good bottle dressings that you could use if you don’t want to make your own, but once you taste this one, I’ll bet you’ll want to make it again.

PEA SHOOT, ASPARAGUS,
AND SPINACH SALAD

For the salad:
6 c. baby spinach leaves
*3 c. pea shoots, also known as pea tendrils, vines or leaves, or pea sprouts, or sugar snap or snow peas, stems and strings removed, cut into matchstick-sized slivers
1 ½ lb. fresh asparagus spears
2 T. extra virgin olive oil
kosher or sea salt to taste
12 strips roasted red bell pepper
4 hard-boiled eggs, each cut

into 6 wedges.
1 c. lightly toasted slivered almonds


For the dressing:
1 c. extra-virgin olive oil
5 T. red wine vinegar
4 T. sour cream
1 ½ tsp. salt
½ tsp. dry mustard
2 T. sugar
Freshly ground coarse black pepper to taste
1 T. chopped fresh parsley, preferably flat-leaf
#1 T. minced garlic

In a medium bowl, whisk together all the ingredients for the dressing and let stand for at least one hour.

Preheat the oven to 400°.

Wash and dry the spinach and pea shoots separately and put the spinach in a large bowl.

Cut the tough ends off the asparagus spears, and place them in a single layer on a large sheet of heavy-duty aluminum foil. Drizzle the asparagus with the 2 T. of olive oil, and sprinkle with a little salt. Bring up the sides of the foil together to enclose the asparagus and crimp the edges to seal, keeping the asparagus in one layer. Put the foil packet on a baking sheet, place in the oven and roast just until tender. This will take 10-20 minutes depending on your oven and the thickness of the asparagus. Remove from the oven, open the packet, and let the asparagus come to room temperature.

Toss the spinach with 1/3 c. of the dressing and spread evenly on a large round platter. Divide the asparagus into 6 bundles and place the bundles around the spinach like the spokes of a wheel. Nestle the pea shoots in between the bundles and in the center of the platter. Place 2 of the pepper strips in an “X” over each bundle. Arrange the egg slices decoratively around the platter, sprinkle the almonds over the top and drizzle with a little additional dressing. Serves 6

* Pea shoots/tendrils or pea sprouts can be found at farmers markets in the spring and Asian markets.
# Green garlic, the young shoots that resemble scallions, are a wonderful springtime treat and work well in this dressing. They also make fabulous garlic bread. Look for them in farmers markets.

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