Meatless Monday: Chilled pea soup

Crisp, fresh spring peas with their beautiful, light flavor create a delicate soup.

The Runaway Spoon
A soup that delivers the freshness of spring peas.

I was a latecomer to the joy of peas. And I think that may be because, like many people, my first introduction to peas was the canned variety. Mushy, salty, gray-green and generally unappetizing. And so time consuming to pick out of a casserole or pot pie, segregating them on one side of the plate, trying to keep them from rolling back into the good stuff. Frozen peas came later, but it took me awhile to get over the earlier canned pea trauma and give them a try. They were an improvement, but remember when frozen peas came in a box that you unwrapped to reveal a giant pea-studded ice cube? And I know people who will only eat peas that come from a certain silver can, and I have a relative who is pathologically afraid of peas, so my start with peas was a bumpy one.

But once I discovered the taste of a crisp pea though, I was hooked. And it was in England that I discovered the greatest joy of all, fresh from the pod peas. I first had them a restaurant, simply braised in butter and I assumed it must be some fancy variety we didn’t have in the States. Then I saw them on sale at a street market and stopped to gaze upon them. The vendor popped open a pod and gave me the peas to taste right there. An absolute revelation, as far from canned peas as Memphis to Mongolia. I bought a huge batch, and more the next day, and the next week.

At home, I discovered that frozen peas are now a darn good substitute and perhaps the most versatile food to have on hand. A handful of good frozen peas tossed into a risotto, soup, pasta, casserole – whatever – adds color and crunch and flavor instantly. I now occasionally find peas pods at the market, but peas begin to turn to starch very quickly after being picked, so they suffer from sitting on shelves. That is one reason frozen peas, now generally flash frozen quickly after they are harvested, are a good choice.

For the past two springs, I have grown my own vines of English garden peas. I have yet to master the art, but I’m getting thee. I haven’t grown a vine that produced a big enough haul to make a whole batch of soup, or to proudly serve a big bowl of buttered, steamed peas to my family and friends, but I eat some raw and some quickly cooked all for me, which is a pretty good thing.

On a trip to Portugal, my friends and I celebrated or last night at a very swanky restaurant. I ordered the cold pea soup and it was absolutely brilliant. The best part of the meal, actually. It had such an intense flavor, like biting into a fresh pea, I just knew that every part of the pea was used to create that depth. So with pea season upon us, I have worked hard to recreate that soup. I use the pods and some tendrils from my own peas, but have supplemented with tendrils from the farmers market and good frozen peas. I lightly steam or blanch the peas from my pods and use them to garnish the soup. At that restaurant, a soup dish with a dollop of crème fraiche and a tangle of pea tendrils was presented at the table, then the waiter poured the chilled soup around the garnish. Feel free to use that flourish.

Chilled Pea Soup with Tendrils and Pods
Serves 6 small bowls, 4 larger ones

If you don’t have your own pea plant, many farmers market vendors sell the pea tendrils, which are also good sautéed with a little olive oil and garlic. Ask the farmers for pea pods as well.

For the stock:
2 ounces pea pods
2 ounces pea tendrils (more if you have them)
8 cups water

For the soup:
1 Tablespoon olive oil
1 large shallot
12 ounces fresh shelled English peas (or thawed frozen)
1/2 cup heavy cream
Salt to taste

Crème fraiche to garnish
Pea tendrils to garnish

For the stock:

Wash the pea pods and the pea tendrils and shake to dry. Place them in a large saucepan and cover with the water. Bring to a boil, stirring occasionally. Reduce the heat to low, cover the pot and leave the stock to simmer for 1 hour. Strain out the pea pods and tendrils and leave the stock to cool. You can make the stock one day ahead if you are using frozen peas. If you are using freshly podded peas, finish the soup on the same day. You should have about 5 cups of stock.

For the soup:

Pour the olive oil into a large saucepan. Finely chop the shallot and add it to the pan. Sauté the shallots over medium heat until they are soft and translucent. Do not let them brown. Add the peas and stir quickly, then pour over 5 cups of pea stock. If you have another handful of pea tendrils, add them as well. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat and cover the pot. Simmer the soup for 20 minutes, or until the peas are completely tender. If you have added pea tendrils, fish them out now. A few stray leaves left in the pot are fine.

Puree the soup using a hand blender, or very carefully in batches in the blender. For a velvety and refined soup, pass the soup through a sieve, scraping and pushing to extract as much liquid as possible, leaving behind the forlorn pea skins. Leave the soup to cool, then refrigerate until chilled. When ready to served, whisk in the heavy cream and salt to taste. Return to the fridge to chill if needed.

Whisk the soup well, and serve with a dollop of crème fraiche, garnished with a lovely curling pea tendril.

Perre Coleman Magness blogs at The Runaway Spoon.

Related post: Caprese Tart

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