Peas Signal Spring for Pizzaiolo Chefs

English peas are an eagerly anticipated delicacy for some Bay Area chefs.


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Photo by Lori Eanes

 

English, or shelling, peas are a banal relic of youth for some people, better remembered than eaten. For others, they are spring’s calling card, gently asserting their sweetness with a crisp pop in the mouth.

For those of the latter mindset, peas’ brief show is worth an almost predatory hunt through the farmers market stalls. Hopefully, such hunts will end at places like Say Hay Farms’ stand at the Oakland-Grand Lake Farmers Market. It’s a small, beautifully curated stand, at which many a shopper has been known to eschew the peas for the more pedestrian sugar snaps—that is, until they’ve been podded for them by farmer Chris Hay and bidden to eat. In such tempting circumstance, “It’s hard for them not to buy them,” Hay said.

Last year’s crop reached epic sweetness. Its sugar content, when tested the way wine grapes are in degrees Brix, revealed the peas to be as sweet as early peaches. Keeping them sweet involves an early morning harvest and a speedy chill prior to delivery the next day.

At restaurants such as Pizzaiolo in Temescal, peas are a great delicacy, and eagerly anticipated. Upon encountering the first of the year, said sous chef Ben Harris, “I won’t have eaten a pea since last year, and so they’ll come in, and we’ll reminisce about how we made the soup from the year before.”

“They’re like ‘orbs of spring,’ ” Harris said, with an amused twinkle in his eye. “Early in the season, I love to make soup with them when they’re really sweet and delicious. A lot of people will use starchy ones to make soup with. I think pea soup is special—it should be celebrated.”

Later in the season, when peas tend to be starchier, Harris turns them into what he calls “pea schmoo”— a spreadable paste for bread toasted in the wood oven. The peas are slowly cooked in olive oil, spring onions, mint, and salt until soft, then mashed with the back of a fork.

The best way to shop for peas? “Taste them,” Hay said. To store, shell peas from the market when you get home, and wrap them in a plastic bag in the fridge. They’ll stay sweet for a couple of days before they become starchy.

 

Ben Harris’ Early Pea Soup

“This is one of the soups I love to make vegetarian. I use water because I think the peas are sweet enough,” Harris said.

 1/2 cup of olive oil

 1 cup of spring onions, roughly chopped

 4 cups of shelled English peas

 6 cups of water, chicken stock, or pea stock

 1 cup of mint leaves

 1 to 2 ice cubes

 Cayenne pepper

 Crème fraîche 

Sweat the onions in olive oil until soft. Then pour in 6 cups of water or stock if using, and bring to a boil. Once it comes to a boil, add the peas and mint. Cook for 2 minutes and purée in a blender. Add ice cubes, one at a time, as it is puréed, so it stays bright green. The puree, when finished, should be smooth and cool. Gently warm it back up, and add salt and a pinch of cayenne pepper. Finish with crème fraîche and a drizzle of olive oil.

 

Pea Stock

 1 yellow onion

 1 head of garlic, peeled

 1 leek

 As many pea shells as you can amass

 A bay leaf or a sprig of thyme (optional)

Put everything in a pot, cover in water, bring it to a boil, and let it simmer for an hour and strain.

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