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Friday, June 13, 2014

Eat Your Peas

I was never a fussy eater. I'd eat anything that anyone shoved in front of me. I was the he'll-eat-anything-kid. And I did. "Can I have your pickle?"  "You really don't want your tomato?" "I'll take your corn." Hell, I didn't care. I was too happy to be proud or embarrassed. Aside from 7-Eleven Slurppies and barbecued potato chips, I lived for vegetables. Vegetables of any kind. Growing up in Europe and Africa, Frau Olga spoiled me with her Czechoslovakian/Hungarian/Austrian take on vegetables while Ababa pushed my naive buttons with her exotic Ethiopian spin. Long before we settled onto my grandparent's farm in Western Kentucky to enjoy the bounty of fresh vegetables from their enormous garden, most of my vegetables came from frozen TV dinners. You see, my father jumped on the frozen TV bandwagon. Totally smitten with them, he fell for the concept hook, line, and sinker.  They weren't swank or fancy, but for a single military father, they were convenient and quick. As seen on TV, we even ate them directly from the wobbly compartmental aluminum trays. Americana. Living the dream in a living commercial. I adored frozen TV dinners. What wasn't to love? Just like those multi-pack waxed-paper lined individually boxed cereal sets, the selection seemed infinite. Lined up and stacked in the freezer like books in a library, we had choices. For a kid, that was fairly heady. Although I wasn't picky, I gravitated toward the frozen blocks that offered little fruit pie triangles and peas. I understood what happened to TV dinners in the oven. I might not have been able to figure out basic mathematical equations in school or diagram sentences on a chalk board in front of my classmates, but I knew that when a frozen dinner bubbled away long enough in an oven, the sticky pie fillings would eventually spill over into the peas and mix with the buttered instant mashed potatoes. Savory and sweet. Heaven. Thanks to Swanson and Banquet, I fell in love with peas. Pea boy.

One summer, midway through my unfortunate stint in summer school (see above) between the fourth and fifth grades, I stopped eating peas. Thinking back, I'm not sure why. Out of the blue, I simply stopped. Nobody understood my folly. I said no to the peas and no to my military father. Bad move. So, for weeks, on frozen pea nights  (in true Leave It To Beaver fashion), I had to sit at the table for hours and stare at my aluminum tray until I finished my peas. I was stubborn. Knowing bedtime would eventually rear its ugly head, I never finished them. Ever. In reality, I might have missed the eschewed peas, but my little game was fun in a weird sort of way. Without fanfare, my resolve weakened. Other desires (paper routes, dolls, slurppies, backyard clubhouses, and puppies) seemed like more important battles to mount. After a few stubborn weeks, my rebellion waned, I once again embraced my frozen peas, and I never looked back

To this day, I'm still a pea fanatic. And, I'm still not picky. Canned, frozen, split, dried, pureed, or mashed, I love them all. In my little world, all peas are created equal. That said, fresh English garden peas are game changers. They can be elusive, though. Over the years, I don't recall ever seeing them at our local farmers' market. I'm sure that if I had seen any, I would have melted like a frozen dinner. Recently, that changed. Even though I've learned to expect the unexpected when I browse the farmers' market, I was shocked  when I stumbled across a  basket of fresh English peas (shell out peas) from Stonehedge Farm. They were dainty, small, and delicate. Mistaken for snap peas, I almost overlooked them. When I realized what they were, I melted.
Pea puddle.

Game on.
Petits Pois a la Francaise (Sauteed Peas and Lettuce).
Except for shelling a few pounds of fresh peas, I'm not sure anything could be simpler than this emerald green take on early summer peas.

Snap. Tear. Scoop. Repeat. Shelling peas has a natural rhythm and flow. Snap the end, tear the string down the side, and scoop the peas into a bowl. Like snapping green beans in a rocking chair on a warm summer day, shelling peas can be wonderfully relaxing.

 After ripping open a paper bag filled with 2 1/2 pounds of fresh English peas, I easily and methodically dispatched the shells.

I cranked a heavy cast iron skillet over a medium flame and added 2 tablespoons of butter. When the butter started to sizzle, I added tiny round slivers of Paw Paw Plantation green onions. Just before the butter browned, I tumbled 2 cups of shelled peas into the butter and sauteed them for 4 minutes before splashing  them white wine to create puffs of steam to soften the peas. After seasoning the peas with sea salt and cracked white pepper, I added an additional 2 tablespoons of butter, let the butter melt into the peas, and pulled the skillet from the flame before tossing  them with loosely torn leaves of Elmwood Stock Farm butterhead lettuce and red leaf lettuce.

Before the lettuces completely wilted from the heat, I scooped the peas into a small bowl and finished with snipped chives.

Here's the deal. Fresh peas pop. Not only did these peas pop, they exploded. Tender and sweet, they retained a slight bite back quality that reminded me I was eating something special, real, and farm fresh. The real deal. And lettuce? Yep. Layers. Flavors. Textures. Nestled into the tiny pea bombs, the slightly wilted lettuces added a soft wet crunch that countered the intense buttery sweetness of the garden fresh peas. Balance.

Summer peas with lettuce.


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