By Joe Dizney
There are some recipes that just hit you like you’ve known them your whole life. This week’s is one of those.
Its author, Ronni Lundy, is a national treasure. Her most recent cookbook is Victuals: An Appalachian Journey, with Recipes. Please pronounce it correctly: vi-dls, viddles or vittles. (Despite its hillbilly connotations, this is the Queen’s English.) Lundy makes the case for the Appalachian South’s rightful claim to spiritual and historical archetype of the farm-to-table movement.
After spending months staring in wonder at this particular recipe in Victuals, waiting for spring peas to appear, I finally prepared it — as Lundy suggests — with frozen peas. Now I’m kicking myself for waiting so long.
Fresh English peas (also known as garden peas, green peas or shell peas) have a short season and must be consumed quickly as their sugars are rapidly converted to starch soon after picking. As a result, only 5 percent of the market crop is consumed fresh, with the rest canned, dried or frozen.
The English moniker likely dates from the 17th century and Thomas Jefferson grew at least 15 cultivars on his Monticello estate. At Jefferson’s prodding, George Washington planted peas at Mount Vernon and developed such a taste for them that one Tory assassination plot involved poisoning his new favorite food.
There is another charming anecdote concerning an annual contest Jefferson held with neighboring farmers to honor the earliest sprouted peas. The winner would host a celebratory dinner for the group. Jefferson’s grandson recalled that “a wealthy neighbor, George Divers, without children, and fond of horticulture, generally triumphed.” Yet, on one occasion, Jefferson produced first, and when his family reminded him it was his right to invite the company, he replied, “No, say nothing about it, it will be more agreeable to our friend to think that he never fails.” Ever the statesman.
Given that history, it’s no surprise that the Scots-Irish (or Ulster Scots) who comprised 90 percent of the earliest Appalachian settlers also embraced the English pea.
The photo in Victuals that accompanies this week’s recipe shows a bowl of peas tossed with sliced radishes and a sprinkling of sliced green onions dressed in a dressing of heavy cream, apple cider vinegar and honey. There’s a strange, Harold McGeeish, kitchen-science thing that happens when you shake three simple ingredients in a jar for a minute and let them sit, unrefrigerated, for an hour. The result is closer to crème fraiche, with a hint of sweetness.
By all means, wait for freshly picked peas if you must, but made with quality organic peas frozen at the peak of freshness, the result is beyond easy and honestly just as good — maybe better, because you can make it year-round.
Ronni Lundy’s English Pea Salad with Radishes and Cream Dressing
¼ cup heavy cream
½ teaspoon apple cider vinegar
¼ teaspoon honey
2 cups fresh or frozen peas
½ cup thinly sliced radishes
¼ cup minced green onions
About an hour before assembling the salad, combine the cream, vinegar, honey and a couple pinches of salt in a small lidded jar and shake for about a minute. Let stand at room temperature.
Bring 3 cups of water to a boil in a saucepan large enough to hold the peas. Boil peas uncovered for 1-to-2 minutes, drain and rinse immediately with cold water. Drain thoroughly and pat dry.
Toss the peas, sliced radishes and chopped green onions in a medium-sized bowl. Add the by now-thickened dressing (using a rubber spatula to get it all from the jar) and toss or stir lightly to coat. Add a healthy grinding of black or white pepper and more salt if desired. Chill for a half hour before serving.