Time to ponder pea pods and try new recipes

June 21, 2006|By ROB KASPER

I am told that rather than saying "Good morning," farmers in New England greet one another in June simply by asking "Peas up?"

Mine are. Several healthy plants have climbed a trellis and formed pods. This spring, with its cool days and its gentle rains, has been a good one for the peas.

I planted two types of peas: conventional peas, which you shell, and sugar snaps, which you eat whole, pod and all. The trouble is I can't remember which is planted where.

So lately, I have been spending a lot of time studying pea pods and munching on a few, trying to figure out if they should be picked immediately or left on the vine to fatten up.

Mostly, I favor fattening. Until the garden peas are ready to harvest, I join the line of folks waiting to buy fresh peas at the weekend farmers' markets. The peas cost $2 a pound, which makes grow-your-own types like me shudder.

These peas, however, are shelled and ready to eat. That is a plus because everything moves fast when you are dealing with fresh peas, which are loaded with natural sugars that quickly turn to starch. You want to buy them shortly after they have been picked. You want to cook them within no more than a day or so after you bought them. And you don't want to cook them very long.

The British love peas. Yet the other day I read, in D.G. Hessayon's The Vegetable & Herb Expert, that the English did not start eating fresh ones until the "wealthy and fashionable" classes began the practice in the mid-17th century.

Before that they were fond of dried peas, primarily in pease pudding, a dish composed of dried peas, butter and eggs and served with boiled bacon. Dried peas have been around since prehistoric times and, in my opinion, usually taste like it. Fresh peas, however, have vibrant flavor. They can be so sweet that they seem like a dessert, not a vegetable that is good for you.

The other day I bought a large bag of fresh peas at the market, then hurried home and tried out a handful of recipes.

First, I tried simply steaming them, cooking them in the top section of a double boiler for a few minutes. This treatment delivered pristine flavor, which was fine for a time. But soon I wanted more excitement.

So next, I added another step to the pea-cooking process. After steaming them for a few minutes, I tossed them in a skillet with a little olive oil and butter, then just before serving, tossed in some chopped mint.

Again, the peas carried the flavor of the dish. Initially, the mint, which had been sitting in the fridge for a few days, was a disappointment. But later I made the dish again with just-picked mint and the improvement was dramatic. I made a note to myself: Mint, like peas, has to be fresh-picked.

Then I hit upon a recipe that turned out to be my favorite: fresh peas and radishes. The recipe came from a cookbook written by Crescent Dragonwagon. For a time, Dragonwagon lived in the Ozark Mountains of Arkansas, where she ran an inn and helped start a writer's colony. Now she writes children's books, novels and cookbooks. The pea recipe came from Passionate Vegetarian, a cookbook that won a James Beard Award in 2003.

In her book, Dragonwagon advised pea shoppers to check for freshness by bending a pod. "It should snap crisply open, not bend limply," she writes. "This tells you how recently it was picked," she says, "and with peas, whose natural sugars swiftly turn to starch, this is essential."

Dragonwagon warns cooks not to lollygag. "No matter how fresh [peas] are when you buy them, the longer you wait to cook them, the more disappointing they will be."

With these bits of Dragonwagon wisdom coursing through my brain, I hurried around the kitchen. As the water in the bottom of a double boiler worked toward a boil, I cut a couple of radishes, fresh from the garden, into thin slices.

Next, I measured 2 teaspoons of sugar, set it aside and then melted 2 teaspoons of butter in a skillet. Everything was in place for the pea-cooking procedure.

When the water roiled, I put the peas in the top of the double broiler, slapped on a lid and set a timer to 1 minute. As soon as the timer buzzed, I pulled the peas from the steamer, patted them dry, then dumped them, along with the sugar, into the heated and buttered skillet.

Next came the shake, rattle and roll. Wearing an insulated glove, I constantly moved the skillet as it sat on a burner. There was, as Jerry Lee Lewis used to sing, "a whole lotta shakin' goin' on."

After about three minutes of gyrating, the sugar had melted and the peas were getting sticky. Then radishes were tossed in and the whole shebang was given a final toss.

I scooped the peas and radishes out of the pan, onto a plate and then into my mouth. The peas, already blessed with a natural sweetness, tasted even finer, thanks to the sugar. The radishes added pungent notes.

Peas and radishes are among the first crops to pop out of the ground in the spring. They give vegetable gardeners hope that things are moving in the right direction.

This combination of the two early-arriving vegetables would, I felt, please New Englanders, British aristocrats and fresh-pea fans everywhere. When the fresh peas show up, it's time to shake, baby, shake.


Podcasts featuring Rob Kasper are available at baltimoresun.com/kasper.

A recipe for Sugar-Glazed Peas With Radishes can be found at baltimoresun.com/taste.

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