Fresh peas can be a trick. The idea is so appealing, but in reality they are often a little tired, or too mature and mealy to eat, or after podding what seemed like a stack of peas, you end up with barely enough for one serving (true, you gobble as you go, and lots end up rolling around the floor like marbles!).
The problem with peas is that the sugars quickly covert to starch once the peas reach maturity. You then have fat peas with a mealy texture sans sweetness. Blah! What’s the point? Frozen baby peas to the rescue! They’re always reliable, having been snap-frozen immediately after harvesting, and they’re small, sweet and tender. Notice I said Babies. Babies, always babies, because big fat daddy peas are inconsistent in size, and, as I have just said, but I feel like repeating it a bit shouty this time, they’re not as sweet and tender as baby peas and the texture is like cardboard. While I’m at it (grizzling), I never buy frozen minted peas, as the mint tastes artificial and medicinal. Get yourself a mint plant and taste the difference.
If you grow your own peas – and I confess to never having enough at any one time to do anything with (I usually just eat them in the garden, or add a handful of them still raw to a salad, then wonder why I did that as they remain at the bottom of the bowl when the salad is finished) – you can freeze them. Put the podded peas in a bag and put it in the freezer and add peas as they are harvested. This is smart, and you can do it with broad beans, too, then when there’s enough for a serving, cook them as you would frozen peas. Now don’t go dumping a big block of frozen peas – you know what I mean, peas encased in an icy brick – straight into the pan of boiling water, because you will lower the temperature of the water and waste time and fuel bringing the water all they back to the boil again. And peas will stay a brighter green if they are plunged into boiling water, not slowly brought to the boil. Put the peas in a sieve and wash off ice crystals first, then add to the boiling water. If you have fresh mint, add some mint stalks for extra flavour, and add a little chopped mint with butter, salt and pepper after draining the peas. Mint will blacken in the heat, but don’t concern yourself with that. It’s what happens to mint when it gets hot. If the Queen is coming for dinner, put the mint in a side dish and let her help herself to it.
To cook fresh peas, bring a small saucepan of water to the boil, add a little salt, drop in the peas and cook without a lid for 5-7 minutes. Mature peas will take longer. If you have the pods, add a few to the water, or if steaming the peas, add pods to the steaming basket, for added flavour. The pods are also good added to stocks and soups. They’ll also add flavour to risotto, just remember to fish them out before serving.
If you happen upon a bunch of fresh peas that look young and fresh (firm bright green pods with small visible peas in the pods – not marble-like monsters!), grab them. They may not yield many peas (1 kg – a good 2 lb – of peas in the pod will yield 2-3 cups of peas), but you can make them go further by adding them to other dishes (risotto, pasta sauces, salads, warm salads and other vegetable dishes). They are gorgeous with new potatoes and spring onions (scallions), and with herbs such as chervil, tarragon, parsley and chives. They also love shallots, garlic, ginger, warming spices, butter, cream, crème fraiche, ham, bacon, prosciutto and jamon, and are gorgeous with sweet seafood like crab, prawns and scallops. Here are a few ideas for fresh or frozen baby peas:
* Blanch fresh shelled peas briefly and add to a spring risotto halfway through – include asparagus, broad beans and/or scallops. Finish with generous amounts of chervil, mint or parsley.
* Cook shallots until golden in plenty of butter and add cooked shelled peas and a splash of chicken or vegetable stock and bubble for a few minutes, season and add fresh mint. Great with roast lamb or chicken.
* Make a rough, lumpy mash of cooked baby peas, add chopped parsley and mint and enough extra virgin olive oil to loosen, then top with slabs of creamy feta and slices of roast lamb (slow roasted, or roasted to medium or medium-rare). Drizzle the lot with pomegranate molasses and eat up.
* Go French and make a dish of sweet peas. Shell a kilo of peas and cook for 15-20 minutes in water barely to cover with the heart of a buttercrunch lettuce and a few pinches of sugar and salt. Drain, return to pan with a lump of creamy butter and fresh mint. Serve the peas the minute the butter has melted, with roast chicken and new potatoes.