These days we’re well-versed in frozen peas. That’s how they come—in look-alike plastic sacks, stacked, with a blast of frosty air, behind glass freezer-case doors—perfectly prepped for kitchen duty on a busy weekday, as if this were the only way a pea would ever want to be. Why bother fussing with a pile of pods when the labor is done for us, and at a reasonable price, too? I’ve been known to rip open a bag. Who hasn’t? But in spring it’s worth rolling up our sleeves and taking a step backward in time, to experience peas in their natural state, fresh off the vine. Just as grandma did in her gingham-curtained, Depression-era kitchen. Any other time of year we might as well open a bag; frozen peas are tough to beat. But in spring, fresh ones are something special. Sweet, firm, bright pops of flavor, all nestled neatly in Mother Nature’s most perfect package.
Part of the pleasure of a fresh pea is in the opportunity to wrestle with it in a tactile way that’s all but extinct in today’s kitchen. Hold a pod in hand and press fingers firmly on both sides against the seam that runs from end to end, until the canoe-shaped casing pops like bubble wrap. Inside a neat, single-file row of edible green balls awaits. Forget the factory prep—these sweet peas are basically good to go. Sneak a few as you work, then round up the rest for a loose sauté in butter with lettuce and green onions. Quick, easy and delicious.
Spring peas offer endless possibilities. For a simple soup start with the sautéed peas and lettuce (double the batch) then add enough stock to barely immerse the vegetables. Bring to a boil then turn off the heat and carefully purée in a food processor. Finish by folding in a spoonful of creme fraiche or nip of cream before serving. Or smash the sautéed peas (skip the lettuce) with a fork to create a coarse paste and adorn with a pinch of mint. Spread over toasted bread or scoop with a raw carrot. Roll inside Middle-Eastern lavash bread with feta cheese, for a quick sandwich. For dinner a simple sauté of spinach, shelled peas, garlic and a squeeze of lemon juice, tossed with cooked pasta and shaved Parmesan, satisfies after a busy day.
Roast fennel with tomatoes and olives. Eat it as is, or fold into cooked farro.