The Vital Ingredient: Peas

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As the first fresh peas arrive in the shops, Tom East tells you how to buy the best pods and cook with their sweet innards…

The first fresh peas should be celebrated every bit as much as the arrival of asparagus this month. Perhaps along with eating cherry tomatoes straight from the vine, there isn’t a bigger treat for domestic vegetable growers than popping just picked peas into their mouths. Sweet, fresh and with a little bite, the raw peas are so hard to resist that gardeners may return to the kitchen with fewer than were necessary for that risotto.

It’s like a different vegetable to the frozen peas we eat all year round. Not that there’s anything wrong with frozen peas – they’re often packed with ice a few hours after they’re picked to lock the goodness in, and are preferable to eating starchy ‘fresh’ peas that have been left in their pods on the supermarket shelves for too long. So, what can you do to ensure you’re buying fresh peas? Firstly, never buy big, thick-skinned pods as the peas will be mature and tough. You’re looking for medium-sized, firm and green ones – if the skins are yellowish, avoid them. You could even break one open to check that the peas are bright green, a decent size (not too big, not too small) and, most importantly sweet to taste.

You might get some funny looks from the shop assistant, but that’s preferable to a funny tasting pea. Once home, you should attempt to eat them straight away as the sugars in peas will quickly turn to starch. It’ll take ages to pod them all anyway, so if you’re not hungry when you get home from the shops, you will be by the time you’re ready to cook. And they really don’t need much cooking – a quick blanch in boiling water for a couple of minutes will do it, and you’re nearly ready to eat, although a bit of melted butter, seasoning and some torn mint leaves will take them to the next level. Buttered, minted peas are the perfect accompaniment to a fillet of fish, roast chicken, or ham and eggs (sweet peas go brilliantly alongside any salty pork). You can also eat them raw in a salad with feta or soft mozzarella, or throw them into a stew at the last minute – an Indian aloo dum, for example.

Some of the best pea dishes are from India – they’re often used in samosas, with lamb mince in a keema dish, or in the classic Punjabi vegetable dish, mattar paneer, which although often found as a side dish in Indian restaurants, is great as the main event alongside rice. Indeed, many of the best pea dishes around the world are served with rice. You’ve got the classic risi e bisi from Italy, while peas are often thrown into Chinese egg fried rice. Closer to home, we often like our peas puréed, whether that’s in a pea and ham soup, or with black pudding and scallops for a fancy starter. And don’t forget the pea shoots – they make for the best sandwiches with thick slices of ham.

 

Pea, potato and mozzarella salad

Ingredients
100g peas
400g Jersey Royal new potatoes
1 ball of mozzarella
Two handfuls of pea shoots
Two handfuls of baby salad leaves
Juice of half a lemon
3 tbsp olive oil
Handful of mint
Salt and pepper

Method
1) Make the dressing. Mix one tbsp lemon juice with three tbsp olive oil. Finely chop one tbsp of your mint leaves and add them to the dressing. Season with salt and pepper.
2) Cut the potatoes into bite-sized chunks and boil in salted water with two sprigs of mint until they’re tender, around 10-15 minutes. Drain and set aside to cool while you assemble the rest of the salad.
3) Put your peas on to boil for three minutes. Drain and tear up your mozzarella.
4) Put the potatoes in a large bowl with the salad leaves and mix with two thirds of the dressing.
5) Divide onto two plates. Sprinkle over your peas and mozzarella, add some more chopped mint, and drizzle over the remainder of the dressing.

 

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