Saturday, May 18, 2013

World peas

(I had planned to write two stories today, to make up for missing one last night due to extreme fatigue following the big bicycle commute. The first was going to be the story I didn't write last night -- about biking to work. The second was going to be a comic piece about doing one's laundry with a spouse. I might do these stories. We'll see what the energy level is like. But in the meantime I need to get some domestic matters in order. Five days ago, Jim was hunting for something in our deep freezer. He pulled out a milk carton crate in which I was storing a number of things: frozen and freezer-wrapped peas from last summer's harvest; frozen and freezer-wrapped rhubarb from the garden; pork broth; a bag of fennel seeds; our last freezer-wrapped celery from the garden; and a two-year-old zip-locked bag of raspberries from the farmers market that we somehow had never gotten around to eating. Today's story inspired by this mishap.)

The deep freezer sits in the basement. Getting down into it is a little like entering a cave. Like many basements in houses built in the 1840s like ours, the basement teems with earwigs and spiders and smells a bit musty, like it has seen better days. But it is a functional space, albeit a space where it doesn't pay to linger.

Jim apparently took the "don't dilly-dally in the basement" advice to heart. Once he found what he sought two or three days earlier, he quickly ascended the stairs, leaving the orange milk crate holding the freezer-wrapped items on the floor. I discovered the crate and its unfrozen items Thursday night when I descended the rickety stairs into the cave to procure some of the garden-frozen peas for a chicken stir-fry. The packets were wet, but the items inside were still intact and still, well, a little cold.

We tossed out the pork broth, and the raspberries went into the compost bin. But I cut open one of the bags of peas and was reassured when the garden-fresh smell of last summer wafted up toward me, letting me know that the peas were still fresh. We put the peas, and rhubarb in the refrigerator with a resolve to turn them into meals within the next three to five days.

Friday was bike-to-work day, which ended with me too tired and too hungry to get culinary-creative.

Today was the farmers market, and as wistful as the peas looked in the refrigerator, the first radishes, Hakurei turnips, and baby bok choy of the spring looked even better.

So tomorrow is the day that we celebrate World Peas by cooking peas in as many creative ways that it will take to use up the bags in the crate. And in a way that celery can complement the peas, with the last of last year's rhubarb to top it all off.

So what does one do with so many peas?

Being able to freeze and store peas from our garden was like a gift from heaven. We eat fresh and local as much as we can, but peas are one of the vegetables (along with corn) that I inconveniently begin craving around mid-February. In years past, I would satisfy this craving by buying a package of frozen mixed vegetables, as long as it included peas. It usually also had carrots, which I like, and if corn was included, I considered the deal a triple bonanza. I would pull out the rice cooker and add some Thai Jasmine, short-grain brown Calrose, or Basmati, and while the grains were being prepared, I would make a stir fry with the bag of frozen veggies and whatever else I happened to have in the house.

This year, thanks to an enormous pea harvest in our back and side yards, we spent the winter stir-frying the peas we had grown on our own. I discovered that the peas frozen in pods hold both their flavor and texture unusually well, if they are quickly blanched and then drained before being freezer-wrapped, and if when unfrozen, they're added into a risotto, stir fry, or soup at the very end.

I also discovered that a handful of peas can go a long way and, as a result, had been using primarily the smaller freezer-wrapped packages.

And thirdly, I discovered that the peas taste best if allowed to thaw as little as possible.

The package in question happens to be quite large. And, after enjoying a five-day slow gradual thaw, the peas still look bright green and pretty. My sense, however, is that they need to be cooked all at once or sent to the compost bin.

The latter wouldn't be the end of the world as the first peas of the season are just beginning to form on our vines. But we grew many of this year's peas from seeds saved from the pods of last year's harvest, and I am a little, perhaps irrationally, superstitious. In short, I fear that a mass composting of last year's peas may jinx the growth of this year's potential.

So what to prepare?

A search through the Internet reveals a tantalizing list of possibilities, including a flan, a meatloaf, and a bright green pea and parsley soup. The only hitch is that we lack many of the added ingredients that the recipes require, including heavy cream, a large number of eggs, and ground meat. Payday isn't until Wednesday, which will be past our peas' prime.

Then, I remembered risotto, the simple, elegant dish that always tastes scrumptious. Back in 1997, I made a pea risotto for friends while living in Honolulu. I think this was the dish that hooked me on peas for life. We do have arborio rice, a rich veggie broth with a strong flavor of beets, shallots, pine nuts, and plenty of parmesan cheese, and a quick Google search convinced me that the risotto won't need much more than that.

So what's for dinner tomorrow? Pea risotto. Possibly also a pea soup -- in which I'll substitute arugula for the parsley, and try skim milk in place of the cream. Possibly also a celery gratineee. Some of the fresh, raw red radishes from the farmers market. And rhubarb-strawberry crisp, cobbler, or pie ... .

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