Mouths to Feed: A.S.A.Pea

Shelling peas the other day, it occurred to me that this activity should be prescribed by doctors as an antidote to screen time. It is intimate, tactile and gentle. Cracking open a pod feels like opening a tiny surprise package; despite the idiom “as like as two peas in a pod,” peas vary! (Albeit slightly.) Plus, peas really are the kittens and puppies of the vegetable world: They are undeniably cute. 

The first time I saw someone shelling peas, however, it struck me as the total opposite of a lo-fi activity. I was blown away. I must have been 5 or 6, and the pea-sheller, an acquaintance of my mother, was sitting on the paved deck of a small backyard pool where we sometimes went to swim on summer afternoons. Suddenly, I had no interest in jumping in the water. I wanted only to stand 10 feet away, as children do, and stare.

The woman asked if I’d like to help. Although I was painfully shy in those days, I approached her, sat down and allowed her to show me how to twist a pod to pop it open. I even ate a few of the pretty, pale-green globes. Until then, I’d only ever tasted peas that came from freezer bags, often mixed with horrible bits of mushy carrot, and I’d hated them. 

I don’t know if this was the first time I realized that foods aren’t just one way (liver: bad; Popsicles: good), but can have many personalities depending on when and how you eat them, and where they come from. I do know that I have been smitten with fresh-shell peas ever since.

In recent years, I’ve planted shell peas and snap peas in our garden each spring (with the former, you eat only the inner pea, discarding the fibrous pod; with the latter, you eat both pea and crisp pod). But this year, an unrelenting foot injury has curtailed all such outdoor activities, and has made it hard to even stand in the kitchen long enough to cook much of anything. 

Back in March, when I should have been planting peas, my cousin from Minnesota wrote to say he’d be in the Hudson Valley in June. At the time, I couldn’t imagine that my foot would not be healed by now, and I invited him to dinner. In his note, my cousin also mentioned that his new partner is a “strict vegan” (is there another kind?). So this week, I suddenly found myself in need of a nibbles-before-dinner dish that is both quick and vegan. I also wanted it to feature peas, because peas make me happy and doctors prescribe happiness for all kinds of ailments.

I found a recipe for a pea-based hummus made with tahini and za’atar. Cool, but wouldn’t the potent sesame and spices drown out the gentle flavor of the peas? Besides hummus is hummus, and I’m a bit tired of it. I decided to substitute almonds for the seeds, and to freshen the flavors. Once the peas were shelled and blanched — something I mostly did sitting down — it came together in five minutes. Better yet, it also included a bulb of lovely spring garlic. 

The result was so good that my husband Peter and I finished off the batch instead of supper that night, him murmuring that “this is delicious,” with the emphasis on different syllables, the whole time. After that, the night was young and the dishes few, so it was back to our screens. Even a pea can’t totally undo the grip of technology.

Fresh Pea Dip

Fresh Pea Dip

  • 2 cups fresh shelled peas, blanched and cooled, or substitute frozen*
  • ⅔ cup slivered blanched almonds
  • 1 whole head young spring garlic, roughly chopped, about ¼ cup* 
  • Zest of 1 lemon plus 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
  • ½ cup gently packed mint leaves, roughly chopped
  • ¼ to ½ cup mild oil, such as grapeseed or canola
  • Salt and fresh pepper, to taste

Place all ingredients except the oil in a food processor or strong blender. Add the oil, starting with ¼ cup and adding more as needed, until a smooth paste is formed. Serve with spring crudites and/or crackers.

* You can substitute frozen peas for the fresh; use petit peas if possible and allow them to thaw in a strainer for about 30 minutes before proceeding with the recipe. You can also substitute chopped garlic scapes for the spring garlic.

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