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One of the sweetest signs of spring is the common English pea, that little bead of virgin green that tastes of all the promise of bigger summer harvests on the way. Chefs tend to get as excited about this humble vegetable as they do over more costly and esoteric spring delicacies like diver scallops and morels. "They're so bright," enthuses chef Michael Kramer of McCrady's, in Charleston, S.C. "We go through tons of them."
A good cook doesn't tamper much with a fresh-picked pea. The less you do to it, the more it delivers. "You just want that pea flavor," says Gerry Hayden, chef at Manhattan's Aureole. To capture it, he makes an ethereal chilled pea velouté topped with a delicate lemon sabayon. It's thinned to the right consistency with a lobster stock that's been simmered with pea shells. A good cook, it seems, doesn't throw out those flavor-packed casings before he's had his way with them.
Downtown from Aureole, at Eleven Madison Park, chef Kerry Heffernan's pea flan is back by popular demand. It, too, tastes mostly of peas, rendered decadent by a rich medium of eggs and cream. In Evanston, Ill., the inventive young chef at Trio, Grant Achatz, has gone in the opposite direction with his crystal-clear pea consommé, served hot in a tall glass topped with fenugreek foam.
At Mélisse, in Santa Monica, Calif., peas are old news already, on the menu since early March. Chef-owner Josiah Citrin can get them early from local growers, who also shell for him. "That leaves us the time we need to peel them," says Citrin. Come again? "Yes, we peel them," he repeats matter-of-factly. "We blanch them and pop them out of their skins. It's a lot of work. But taste a peeled pea alongside a unpeeled one and you'll see that it's worth it."
Like many chefs, Citrin likes to pair peas with light-fleshed fish and shellfish. His peekytoe crab salad with sweet pea coulis, lemon crème fraîche and caviar is a popular spring appetizer, delicious, he says, with an Alsace Pinot Gris. McCrady's Kramer makes a pea puree for fish -- but he only makes it to order, he says, so it arrives at the table still vividly green. Hayden's pea sabayon over roasted cod and morels, as light as shaving cream, is an excellent partner for chilled Gruner Veltliner.
Not surprisingly, people who grow peas don't typically show a lot of interest in creations like these, inspired as they are. Nothing compares to a pea that's minutes off the vine. "I eat them more raw than I do cooked," says Hudson Valley farmer Ken Migliorelli, who sells peas to a number of leading Manhattan restaurants. "They're like candy to me." Still, his peas stay plenty sweet for three or four days after harvest, provided they're refrigerated. He won't begin harvesting until next month; in the meantime, his customers must bring peas in from Florida and California.
English peas aren't really English, though the long, cool British spring brings out the best in them. The varieties that thrive best in North America (and there are many varieties, all similar in character) are actually Italian in origin. Peas are commonly paired with cured pork in Italy, as in the classic Roman vignarola, braised baby artichokes generously garnished with spring bounty -- not just peas, but tender new potatoes, fava beans, prosciutto and mint.
Buy peas in their shells, at a farmer's market, if possible, where they're sure to be fresher. Look for healthy green pods that are a little heavy. Avoid overly swollen ones, especially in late spring, when peas get too big and start to taste starchy and tired.
At home, peas are best enjoyed simply: blanched for just four or five minutes in salted water until tender and bright green. If you're feeling more ambitious, says cooking guru Madeline Kamman, author of New Making of a Cook, you might simmer mint stems in the water for 10 minutes before adding the peas. Toss the finished product in a little butter and a pinch of sugar, she advises, and you're done. This "recipe" is titled "Glorious Boiled English Baby Peas," and it's sure to please -- even without peeling.
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