Small, Good Things: Oh, Sweet Pea

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.

Ronni Lundy’s English Pea Salad (Photo by J. Dizney)

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

Serves 4

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.

2 thoughts on “Small, Good Things: Oh, Sweet Pea

  1. I’m going to try this recipe Joe. It looks excellent.

    When I was in my early teens there were a lot of peas grown in my home county of Essex, Ontario. The harvesting method at that time involved cutting the pea vines off at the ground, raking them into rows just as you would hay, and loading them onto large dump trucks that had high wooden racks added so that the loads could be as large as possible. The trucks then took the peas, still on the vine, to a processing plant on the South Talbot Road.

    My brothers and I, aided and abetted by the Milligan brothers, knew where all the local pea fields were located. We would hide in the ditch at a rural cross roads where the trucks had to stop ever so briefly. Pea vines always hung down in heaps off the back of the over-loaded trucks. We would scamper out of the ditch and grab as many armfuls of vines as we could.

    In truth, we did not care much about the peas. This was high adventure. We never knew how the truck driver would react when he saw the band of young thieves appear in his rear view mirror. Sometimes the driver would honk and yell at us, “Hey you kids ….get the hell out of there … I’ll kick you ass!” Other times a more kindly driver would holler, “Take all you want boys!” On rare, adrenaline-producing occasions, a driver would actually get out of the truck and chase us down the road, forcing us to drop our haul as we high-tailed it to safety. The stronger, faster legs of our youth all but guaranteed our escape.

    We took mounds and mounds of pea vines home. My sisters shelled them all. My mom was grateful for the fresh food. The word “stealing” was never uttered at out supper table. We always referred to it as “hooking peas.” We hooked so many peas mom would freeze the surplus, to be enjoyed months later in mid-winter.

    But alas, technology put an end to our hooking enterprise. We were shocked to see new machines roll into the field and harvest just the pea pods – leaving piles of empty vines in their wake. You couldn’t hook peas from the sealed tanker trucks that hauled them away. The processing plant disappeared. It was the end of an era.

    Today, when I cook peas perfectly – maximizing the distinctive, delicious taste, it takes me back to a time when Terry, Mike and Pat Turton, along with Bernie and Ed Milligan were perhaps the most renowned hookers of peas in Essex County.

    Thanks for bringing the memory back once again Joe. If you do a sweet corn recipe later in the season, I’ll regale you with tales of how my brothers and I “liberated” uncountable dozens of ears of corn from the 200-acre field just across the road from where we lived. I’m sure Green Giant wondered why the yield was so poor in that particular field.

  2. Thanks, Mike. Great story and I’ll be sure to connect before sweet corn time. In the meantime, David Lebovitz just posted this great recipe for Sweet Pea and Radish Tartines which is swell a variation on the same theme, I believe.