A delicious roly-poly green orb, the pea is one of those things that is truly best eaten fresh from the plant while sitting in a patch of spring sun in a garden. Their sweetness leaves no doubt that they are indeed botanically considered a fruit, although they are also classified as a legume. Sadly, the sweetness of a fresh pea deteriorates very quickly, as the sugars rapidly turn to starch, so unless you have a fine fresh example to use, frozen peas are often the answer. Peas are traditionally a bi-annual crop in Australia, though are now available year round. In Italy, the native variety of piselli only swings into action once a year, with a very short season.
Soil, shoots and pods
Pea crops are very good to grow for the health of soil, as they are one of those clever plants that takes nitrogen from the air and puts it back into the ground, preventing the need for artificial fertilisers. Their shallow root system can help prevent erosion and the plants break down easily, which is also good for soil replenishment. The tendrils are delicious to eat as well; the early stems of the plant are delicate-looking but have quite a robust flavour. Also from the pea family are sweet sugar snaps, which can be eaten whole, pod and all, and are used a lot in Asian cooking. Then there are snow peas, or mange tout in French, literally translating to “eat all” which, as the name suggests, is what you do!
Sailed away in a pea green boat
Podding peas is one of my favourite jobs; I find it meditative. Sometimes when it all gets a bit too hectic at my restaurant, Berta, I will stand in the corner and quietly pod peas while calmly compiling a list in my head of all the things that need to be done. As a guide, 100g of pods will yield about 40g of peas, so spend less than two minutes podding and you'll end up with 100g of peas.
There are certain dishes that are best taken advantage of when you have fresh spring peas at the ready and when you can bring yourself to pod them and not eat them straightaway. They can be blanched and lightly crushed, mixed with either garlic or fresh horseradish, balanced upon a chargrilled piece of toast spread with a little mascarpone to make a delicious bruschetta. Or you could place fresh ricotta on a plate, blanch and cool some peas and throw them over the ricotta with a little mint and lots of olive oil and cracked pepper. The grassiness and slightly bitter flavour of a good new-season olive oil works very well with the sweetness of peas. Always have frozen peas on hand so you can easily make quick and tasty pasta dishes, risotto and fried rice. And they double as a handy ice pack.
I eat my peas with honey
I once made a pea granita for a dessert; slightly unexpected in terms of flavour but an excellent texture and a beautiful, bright green colour.
Two peas in a pod
There are other excellent matches that we must speak of. In Italy, peas often appear served with broad beans, as well as braised artichokes – a particular favourite of mine, especially when served with a little verjus, diced potato and lots of parsley. Another great combination is peas cooked with almost any variation of pork, whether fresh or cured. At Berta, I’ve made a variation on a pea and ham soup using a prosciutto-based broth that is a little salty but unctuous, with a handful of peas and risioni. Really, though, all you need is a bowl of warm peas sitting in a puddle of butter.
Photography by Benito Martin. Styling by Jerrie-Joy Redman-Lloyd.