Peas, Peas, Peas
The quantity of English pea plantings and harvests at Monticello during Thomas Jefferson’s day suggests that these garden peas, or shell peas, must have been our third president’s favorite vegetable. Jefferson joined his neighbors in a race each year to see whose peas would be the “first peas to the table.” The winner of the contest hosted a dinner party, serving these sweet, crisp legumes in celebration of springtime.
The following 19th century recipe comes from Mary Randolph, a relative of Thomas Jefferson:
To have them in perfection, they must be quite young, gathered early in the morning, kept in a cool place, and not shelled until they are to be dressed; put salt in the water, and when it boils, put in the peas; boil them quick twenty or thirty minutes, according to their age; just before they are taken up, add a little mint chopped very fine, drain all the water from the peas, put in a bit of butter, and serve them up quite hot.
Randolph, Mary, The Virginia House-Wife, 1824 (facsimile of first edition, Historical Notes and Commentaries by Karen Hess, University of South Carolina Press, 1984, pp. 127-8).
As Mary Randolph suggests, mint and butter both pair well with fresh peas. Her simple recipe is undoubtedly one of the best sides for spring lamb. However, unless you want mushy peas, boiling for one or two minutes, followed by an ice bath, should suffice.
The best time to experiment with fresh peas is May and early June, as peas do not grow well in the heat of summer. Pesto is one of the most versatile ways to use peas. It is delicious served atop crusty bread, tossed with linguine or cheese ravioli (optional addition: pancetta), and as an accompaniment to fish and poultry. Try it with poached salmon, seared scallops, or baked chicken. Let your imagination be your guide. The following recipe makes about two cups of pesto– and may be almost as ambiguous as Mary Randolph’s recipe in terms of quantity and procedure! Taste, adjust, and enjoy!
Pulse the following ingredients together in a food processor.
1 cup fresh peas, blanched (or, if using frozen peas, thawed)
1 handful of mint and 1 handful of basil
1 clove minced garlic
Juice of 1 lemon
½ cup grated Pecorino or Parmesan cheese (vegan: use walnuts or pine nuts)
1/3 cup olive oil, added last in a slow, steady stream
Salt and pepper to taste
One pound of pea pods is roughly equivalent to one cup of shelled peas.