When I was 6 or 7 years old, I helped my grandmother’s housekeeper shell a big bowl of peas as we were sitting in the warming spring sun in front of the house. I have loved peas ever since. The pea season was very short then. Today we have frozen peas year round and that is wonderful. Keep in mind though that peas lose some of their delicate flavour when they are frozen. The season for fresh peas is fast approaching. Check out local farmers’ markets while it lasts!
For me, the simplest and best way to enjoy fresh peas is as a side dish: buy young peas in the pod, shell them, cook for two to three minutes in enough boiling water to barely cover, drain, then gently sauté them in butter with some chopped mint or parsley for another two to three minutes, season with salt and pepper and serve immediately.
Once peas get a little older, there are many ways to stretch the season, for example:
• Sauté your favourite mushrooms and serve on a bed of puréed peas.
• For something out of the ordinary, surf the net for interesting recipes from India, like Matar Paneer or Methi Malai Matar (fresh fenugreek leaves and peas in a creamy curry sauce); spinach makes a mild, if not authentic substitute for fenugreek leaves.
• Add cooked peas and a generous amount of heavy cream to coarsely mashed new potatoes like the Shakers did.
And then there is that great Venetian classic: Risi e Bisi. The following recipe is based on one in Cooking from an Italian Garden by Paola Scaravelli and Jon Cohen.
Risi e Bisi
4 tablespoons butter
1/2 medium onion, finely chopped
1/4 cup finely chopped fennel
1 tablespoon chopped parsley
1 cup fresh or frozen shelled peas
1/8 teaspoon sugar
Salt to taste
1 cup Arborio rice
3 1/2 cups hot vegetable broth
1/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan
In one tablespoon butter, sauté half the onion until transparent. Add the fennel, sauté for 3 to 5 minutes, then add the parsley, peas, sugar and salt and sauté until almost done, adding water as necessary to prevent scorching. Do not overcook!
In a heavy saucepan, sauté the remaining onion in 2 tablespoons butter until transparent. Add the rice and sauté 2 to 3 minutes, stirring continuously. Add the broth, 1/2 cup at a time, and continue cooking over medium heat, stirring frequently, until the rice is almost done. Add the peas, mix them in thoroughly and finish cooking the rice. Just before serving, off the burner, stir in the remaining butter and the grated Parmesan. Enjoy!