Mind your peas and pods

Spring is the season to enjoy fresh green peas and sugar snaps.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Pass the peas, please: Guida Ponte, a chef at Verrill Farm in Concord, Mass., displays a risotto made with fresh peas and asparagus.
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Peas have long gotten a bad rap. "Eat your peas!" is a classic parent mantra, calling up images of stern mothers hovering over their children as they watch them painstakingly gulp down every last pea on their plates. But more and more, peas are not a dreaded guest at the dinner table but rather a welcome addition to any menu.

Just ask Jennifer Verrill, co-owner with her parents of Verrill Farm, a popular farm stand, bakery, and deli in Concord, Mass. "Those first peas of the season are just as exciting as the first stalks of asparagus," says Ms. Verrill, who is partial to sugar snap peas. "I love all peas, but the snap peas are so easy since you don't have to shell them."

She and other chefs at Verrill Farm cook both traditional English peas and snap peas, incorporating them into salads, stir-fries, risotto, and a vibrant green soup.

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And when Verrill returns home, she serves peas to her two young daughters, who don't have to be told to clean their plates. "It's one of the only vegetables they will eat," she says, adding that the girls like to pop the peas out of their pods – in their home kitchen and in the fields at the farm.

Verrill's father, Steve, devotes about half an acre each to the sugar snap peas and English peas (also called garden peas or green peas). When researching different varieties of peas, he looks for ones that are great tasting and have short vines that don't require trellising.

Some of his favorite sugar snap peas are Cascadia, Sugar Ann, and Sugar Sprint. Of the English peas, he likes Dakota (an heirloom variety), Green Arrow, and more recent variations of Progress No. 9, which is an old standby from when he was a kid.

At home, Mr. Verrill likes a no-fuss recipe. "They're best with a little milk and butter, salt and pepper," he says, adding: "I'm the only one in the family who likes them like that."

His customers prefer more sophisticated recipes as well. Two of the most popular take-out dishes made with peas are the Asparagus and Pea Risotto (recipe at left) and Fresh Spring Soup, both creations of resident chef Guida Ponte.

For the risotto recipe, Ms. Ponte likes to use fresh sugar snap peas, sliced on the diagonal so they look their prettiest.

Sometimes she makes the purée for the pea soup with frozen peas – the best-quality available – to speed things up, or after fresh peas are no longer readily available.

One could do the same at home – except, then, any little ones would miss the opportunity to pop the peas right out of their pods. After that first sweet bite into those fresh green orbs, maybe – just maybe – their delight will help them forget any distaste for all things green, and they'll never again dread the season of fresh peas.

Pea and asparagus risotto

2 shallots
6 stalks of asparagus, ends trimmed
2 cups sugar snap peas
5 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided
4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) butter
1 cup arborio rice
6 cups chicken broth
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 tablespoon fresh thyme
1 teaspoon fresh mint, minced
1/4 cup Parmigiano-Reggiano, grated

Peel and mince shallots and set aside.

Wash asparagus and cut stalks on the diagonal into 1-inch pieces. Wash peas and cut them in half on the diagonal.

In a sauté pan over medium-high heat, cook asparagus and peas in about 1 tablespoon of extra-virgin olive oil, sautéing asparagus for about 3 minutes and adding peas for the last minute. Set vegetables aside.

In a stockpot over medium heat, melt butter with 1 tablespoon olive oil, add shallots, and cook until caramelized, about 5 minutes. Add rice, then the broth – 1/2 cup at a time – cooking until rice is almost tender. Then add peas and asparagus and cook another 1 to 2 minutes, until rice has absorbed the broth and is tender. Add the fresh herbs, salt and pepper, and serve with freshly grated cheese. Serves 6.

Pea Soup
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 medium yellow onion, chopped
1 pound fresh shelled peas or good-quality frozen peas
1 quart chicken stock
1 teaspoon dried thyme
2 tablespoons fresh mint, finely chopped
Salt and pepper to taste

In a large soup pot, heat olive oil and sauté chopped onion in it until well caramelized, about 10 minutes. Add peas and sauté for about 2 minutes. Add chicken stock and dried thyme. Bring to a boil, then simmer until peas are tender. Cool slightly, then puree in batches in a blender or use a hand-held immersion blender and blend well in the pot. Add mint, adjust flavor with salt and pepper if needed, and serve. Serves 4 to 6.

– Recipes provided by Guida Ponte, chef at Verrill Farm, Concord, Mass.

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