Because I have so much food to share and because I haven’t posted many recipes lately, I am kicking off a week of posting everyday. I also happen to have a husband out of town and a week with no food event in sight, so I have a few spare minutes to write and share. If I don’t set the goal for myself, it will never happen. So I hope you’re hungry!
Let’s start with pea soup, shall we? My brother Michael is dating a young woman who I really like. She happens to be a terrific photographer and she sold a photo to a magazine. (Thankfully, she is not a food photographer – otherwise I would feel really embarrassed around her.) She wanted to celebrate and offered to take him out to dinner. She is a vegetarian and, rather than watching her suffer through yet another pasta or risotto in a restaurant, he suggested they come to my house. Cute, right? I was touched and planned a special menu.
I’ve been eying the recipe for these little pea squares ever since I bought Maria Elia’s The Modern Vegetarian. If you want to make a special meal to impress, this is a terrific book to explore. Vegetarian cookbooks often fall into predictable patterns. You will see a ratatouille, recipes using polenta, tians, pasta dishes. Not this one. How about Watermelon Curry with Black Beans and Paneer? Or Fresh Borlotti Bean Cassoulet? Every recipe is interesting and different. Not a lot of quick and easy, but really special food.
High on my list of all time favorite foods in the entire world is fresh English peas – also called shelling peas. One of my earliest food memories is opening up one of the pods and delighting in the peas’ green sweetness. I have to tell you that is still how I like them best. Just fresh, raw, and straight out of the pod. I do occasionally use them in small batches barely cooked. An example would be added to a risotto or a spring vegetable stew at the last minute, just enough to soften them the slightest bit. But I would never use them in a soup for several reasons. (You may be nodding your head and saying, “Yes, let’s get on with it Dana”, in which case skip ahead.)
They are expensive for the yield. The cheapest I ever see these guys is about $3 a pound and sometimes as high as $6. A pound of English peas includes the pods so you need to buy 2-3 pounds to get 1 pound of actual peas. Not cost effective for soup.
They take a lot of time to prepare. For something that takes less than a minute to cook, they are a lot of work to shell. It is easy and meditative work to do, but still.
They aren’t as tasty as frozen. Now don’t cry blasphemy! A fresh and perfect pea is about as good as it gets. But so many of them are not perfect. They have grown too big so the sugar has turned to starch and your gorgeous pea tastes a little like cardboard. Those guys in the freezer section are flash frozen right after picking so they are almost all sweet.
I always have bags of peas in my freezer and they are definitely what work best in this soup. I’ve made other versions of fresh pea soup before and really it’s hard to go wrong. You add a bit of onion, some stock and some herbs, but otherwise you just allow the pure flavor of peas to come through. This recipe has the ingenious idea to hold back some of the peas until just before pureeing so the soup doesn’t go all split pea color on you. It stays nice and green. Love little ideas like that.
Elia calls these Pea Jelly and I think they are sheer genius. They are very easy to make and look pretty spectacular against this soup, or anything else come to think of it. Next time, I will make them in a smaller and deeper container so they are even more cube-like for better visual appeal. So often fancy garnishes disappoint in the taste department but not this one. It is the pure essense of peas and tarragon – a wonderful combination. I served the soup with these and then promptly ate every speck of leftover.
One last note. I’m a bit Goldilocks when it comes to pea soup. Too cold and the delicate flavor gets totally muted. Too hot and we go dangerously into split pea soup territory. I like mine just right, which is to say cool room temperature.
One Year Ago: Vietnamese Tofu Sandwiches
Pea, Basil, and Mint Soup
Adapted from The Modern Vegetarian
If you have an opened bag of really old peas in your freezer, don’t use those. Do yourself a favor and buy a fresh bag. There is no need to thaw them before using.
1 tbsp. olive oil
1 small yellow or white onion, peeled, finely chopped
18 oz. frozen petit pois peas
2½ cups water
Leaves of half a small bunch of mint
Leaves of a small bunch of basil
Pinch of sugar
1 tsp. salt
Heat the oil in a medium saucepan. Add the onion and sauté until softened and translucent. Add two-thirds of the peas, the water, half the mint and basil, the sugar, and the salt. Bring to a boil, then simmer for 20 minutes or until the peas are tender.
Put the soup in a blender in batches, adding the remaining peas and herbs, and blend to a smooth purée. Adjust the seasoning to taste. (DT: I wouldn’t make this soup too far ahead of serving time so it keeps the color. Just enough to allow it cool is probably good. Also, it is quite thick. If you like thinner soup, thin it with water.)
You can find agar agar in natural food stores of Whole Foods.
2/3 cup water
Pinch of salt
4 oz. frozen shelled peas
1 tbsp. butter
1 small shallot, finely diced
2 tbsp. chopped tarragon
4 tsp. cream
½ tsp. agar agar powder or 1 tsp. agar agar flakes
Salt and pepper
Bring the water to a boil, add a pinch of salt and cook the peas until tender. Drain the peas, reserving the cooking liquid.
Heat the butter in a small pan, add the shallot and cook until softened and translucent. Add the peas, tarragon, and cream and simmer for 4 minutes.
Measure the reserved cooking liquid and make it up to 2/3 cup, if necessary, with water. Return the cooking liquid to the heat, whisk in the agar agar and simmer for 2 minutes. Pour the two mixtures into a blender and blend until smooth. Pass through a sieve and season with salt and pepper.
Pour into a shallow plastic container and let cool before refrigerating. Refrigerate until set (about 1 hour), then cut into cubes and serve with the soup.