Peas, Please, As Perfect As Possible—Or We'll Have To Get Creative

Mr. Big peas, grown by J. M. Wood, Lexington, Kentucky

Mr. Big peas, grown by J. M. Wood, Lexington, Kentucky

Peas, growing up, meant the shell-out kind, also known as English peas, pod peas, green peas, garden peas...and heaven only knows what you grew up calling them, if you were lucky enough to grow up with them at all. Their formal name: pisum sativum. Sounds...a bit suspicious, don't you think? Even worse, as science will have it, peapods are actually a fruit: "since they containseeds developed from the ovary of the (pea) flower!

Everything that was NOT a garden/shelled/pod/English pea drew a modifier in my childhood household: "snow," "snap," "dried," "split"—all those are non-peas. Peas meant the sweet green orbs that grew in pods and had to be shelled out of those pods by hand before cooking with a little salt, bacon fat, and a touch of sugar. Peas meant my favorite vegetable, one I trusted and adored.

Mother and Dad planted peas in multiple 50 foot rows, amounting, I am guessing, to 300 feet of peas each season. From late May through June, peas appeared so often on the table they functioned as a staple. I could identify, by taste, appearance, and shelling difficulty, peas named Early Alaska, Lincoln, Thomas Laxton, Laxton's Progress, Green Arrow, and (later one) Wando. Different types matured at slightly different times, stretching out the season and the work of canning or freezing at least a little. Frozen peas from our early summer garden served as a major vegetable for at least two meals a week all through the non-pea season.

I liked peas so much I exempted them from my usual mean-spirited resentment of anything that (1) involved intimate, personal relations with (2) bushel baskets of vulnerable somethings that had to be (3) hand-processed as quickly as possible, requiring (4, 5, 6, 7) hours of time to preserve (8) something Other People bought at the grocery store for pocket change. Here's a case of my early Picky Eater trumping my early Lazy Girl self: Even though grocery stores did offer affordable frozen and (unthinkable!) canned peas, I already knew two things about peas:

  • the best ones come from the closest garden
  • the second best ones come from the freezer closest to that garden.

Sadly, I have not succeeded in growing peas in the exceptional Bluegrass soil in our urban garden. After a few years of spotty germination in spite of experiments with planting earlier and using inoculants, I gave up. Real, perfect peas went missing from my table. A few times I have bought peas at a farmers' market, only to chew through the mostly tasteless "fruits" later and regret the expense and the effort. This spring I excitedly ordered peas in two different restaurants that usually make perfect food, only to have two disappointing experiences. In one, in the middle of an otherwise perfectly prepared five course meal, the peas stood out as hard, starchy,  tasteless spheres that should have been fed to the chickens. In the other restaurant, "peas" on the menu amounted to "pea shoots" on the plate. Interesting, pithy, chewy, but not peas.

I formed Pea Flavor Theory 1: Restaurants cannot serve perfect peas. They cannot master the vanishingly small time zone required between picking from a farm and cooking for patrons. Peas are even more fragile than corn on the cob (which I never order in restaurants, either.) The sugars in peas convert to starch quickly.

Even worse, we have an expertise gap. So few people understand peas that 99 percent of growers pick their peas too late, after peak maturity, after the point when the peas' precious sugars have vanished. As a veteran pea handler who has opened an estimated 17,289 pea pods in my life, I can report that it is possible to learn to tell the right point to pick peas by two signs the pods offer: a ripe pea will fill out its pod enough to be felt through the pod. The surface of the pod will be smooth and slickly waxy. Peas that have matured past the point of sweetness will fill their pods to the point of tautness, and—most telling—the surface of the pod will be covered with a mosaic of palpable veins. Overripe pods will also show a paler color that fades toward white, not the deep pea green of the perfectly ripe specimen, and the individual peas inside will show as lighter green when placed beside perfectly ripe peas. Those telltale mosaic-ish, white-ish pods fill the offerings at most farmers markets, if I can even find peas at all.

Pea Flavor Theory 2: The skill of picking peas at the right moment, when the pods are full but not over-full, requires bravery, precision, and, most important, a good hands-on coach. Growers new to peas may be tempted to keep waiting for fatter and fatter pods, but as they wait for heavier yield past a certain delicate point, they give up precious flavor.

Last week I got a query from Future Daughter-In-Law (Yea for that!) about ways to prepare beautiful shelled peas she had received as a gift. Not trusting my old memories about quick cooking and next to no inputs, I looked online and made suggestions about choosing from among four appealing pea preparations 101 Cookbooks offered. My formula for choosing the right recipe from among the four began with tasting the raw peas. If still sweet, then the simplest possible preparation, "Simpler, Perfect Peas with Butter and Salt," would yield a memorable dish. If starchy, with little sweet pea flavor left, more add-ins would help, so "Spring Pea Slathered Crostini" seemed a good bet.

The presence of peas at J. M. Woods's stand at the Lexington Farmers Market a few days later surprised me. I had thought pea season in Kentucky was over, but here were Mr. Big peas, with some open pods inviting tasting before buying. I tasted. My tasting assessment: some of the sugars and pea taste remains, and these "fruits" will be the closest to Pea Heaven I can get in 2012. I bought two baskets, enough to yield about seven ounces of shelled peas. Remembering my own advice about add-ins for less than perfect peas, I bought some Bracken County oyster mushrooms and Blue Moon shallots to cook with my treasures.

The results: worth the cost and effort, with some residual pea flavor, and overall complementary tastes.

Pea Flavor Theory 3, the final theory: Given that peas can lose flavor in two ways (over-maturity, and lapsed time off the vine) it's good to have options to use slightly less than perfect peas and still enjoy them. It's this third theory that will hold force for my household until a backyard pea production solution develops in the Campsie garden.

A sort-of-recipe follows for my version of Bluegrass Fresh Peas, Mushrooms, and Shallots.

Kentucky fresh peas, Bracken County oyster mushrooms, and Blue Moon shallots

Kentucky fresh peas, Bracken County oyster mushrooms, and Blue Moon shallots

Bluegrass Fresh Peas, Mushrooms, and Shallots

7 ounces freshly shelled peas, or more 1 large fresh shallot, finely chopped (any allium will work here: green onions, chopped sweet onion, or chives are delicious) 8 ounces fresh mushrooms, wiped clean and coarsely chopped 1 Tablespoon salt (for the boiling water) 1 Tablespoon butter (use a neutral oil for a vegan version of this dish) 1/2 teaspoon bacon grease (optional) Salt and pepper to taste

  1. Bring 2 quarts water to a boil. Add 1 Tablespoon salt.
  2. Add shelled peas. Cook 45 seconds. If the peas are particularly young, tender, and sweet, 20 seconds will do.
  3. Drain the peas and rinse them with cool water, or dump them into an ice water bath to stop their cooking.
  4. In the same pot, or another if you wish, melt 1 Tablespoon butter over medium high heat. Add 1/2 teaspoon bacon fat, if using.
  5. As the butter begins to brown ever so slightly around the edges, add the finely chopped shallot and stir constantly for one minute.
  6. Add the chopped mushrooms to the hot pan and continue stirring and cooking until the mushrooms wilt and give up some of their moisture, about three minutes.
  7. Add the drained peas back to the pot with their savory mushroom and shallot friends. Stir well, heat through, and taste for seasoning.
  8. Add salt and pepper to taste.
  9. Serve immediately, and enjoy.


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