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Recipes and Stories

21 April 2018: Of Spring Peas and Thyme

Fresh Spring Pea Soup with Spring Onions and Thyme

Whether you call them garden, green, sweet, or, as we often do in the South, “English” peas, you probably take the plump, round seeds of the trailing plant pisum sativum for granted. You may even think of them as ordinary and a bit boring. Yet, once upon a time, these little orbs were celebrated as a precious commodity and a rare harbinger of spring.

Thomas Jefferson even carried on a friendly competition with one of his neighbors for the first pea harvest of the season.

Mr. Jefferson and his neighbor could never have imagined that their precious bite of spring would one day be frozen and canned into culinary oblivion. With the advent of canning and freezing, the sweet little peas that were so precious to them have become a hackneyed year-round green staple, rounding out weeknight dinner plates, cafeteria steam tables, and the vegetable well of virtually every frozen TV dinner tray in the land.

Today even fresh peas, which are still more seasonal than most other vegetables, are rarely the treat that they were for our ancestors, who understood (as we often do not) that they had to be cooked as soon as possible after they’re gathered. Unhappily, our “fresh” peas seldom really are, and since this vegetable actually holds up fairly well to freezing, the ones in the freezer case, so long as they’ve not been repeatedly half-thawed and refrozen, are often better than so-called fresh ones.

That’s especially true if the peas have already been shelled. Yes, shelling them yourself is tedious, but the pods preserve their flavor. Once they’re shelled, their natural sugars quickly begin to break down, so buying them shelled is not worth the convenience.

If you happen to grow peas in your own garden or at least have access to a good local farmers’ market where you can buy them freshly harvested and still in their pods, cook them quickly and dress them simply with fresh butter and perhaps a little chopped mint or spring onion. You’ll rediscover for yourself why Mr. Jefferson was so excited by the first peas “coming to table.”

Another handsome way to prepare them is in this lovely soup, which also happens to bring out the best even of frozen peas and those that are not quite so fresh as you’d like.

Green Pea Soup with Thyme

This is lovely even with frozen peas, but it’s at its best if you have fresh peas so that you can make broth with the pods. Mint is the more usually pairing with sweet green peas, but thyme is another fresh spring herb that’s equally lovely with them.

Serves 6-8

The pods from 2 pounds of fresh peas (optional)
4-5 cups water
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 cup thinly sliced shallots or yellow onion
4 cups thinly sliced leeks (both white parts and tender greens)
4 cups freshly shelled (about 2 pounds unshelled) or 4 cups frozen green peas
2 rounded tablespoons fresh thyme leaves
Salt and whole white pepper in a mill
1-2 tablespoons raw (turbinado) sugar, if needed
6-8 tablespoons heavy cream
Thinly sliced scallion greens or chives

1. If you’re not using fresh peas with their pods, skip to step 2. If you have the pods, wash them in cold water and put them in a 3-4 quart saucepan with 5 cups of water. Bring it to a boil over medium high heat, adjust the heat to a simmer, and simmer 30 minutes. Strain the broth, discarding the pods. You’ll have about 4 cups.

2. Put the butter and shallots in a 3-quart pot over medium-low heat. Cook, stirring often, until the shallots are wilted and translucent, about 6-8 minutes. Add the leeks, stir well, and cook, stirring often, until they also are wilted, about 5 minutes.

3. Add the peas, raise the heat to medium high, and toss until they’re hot through. Add the pea broth or 4 cups of water, half the thyme leaves, and season well with salt and white pepper. If the peas are not very sweet on their own, add teaspoon or so of raw sugar. Bring to a boil and adjust the heat to a gentle simmer. Cook until the peas are tender, about 15-20 minutes depending on their freshness (fresh peas will take a good bit longer than frozen ones). Let it cool slightly and puree the soup in batches in a blender.

4. Taste and adjust the salt and sugar and season well with white pepper. Let it cool completely, then cover and chill for at least 2 hours or overnight. To serve it hot, bring it back to a simmer over medium-low heat, stirring often, taste and adjust the seasonings, and ladle it into warm soup plates or bowls. To serve it cold, taste and adjust the seasonings and ladle it into cool bowls. Hot or cold, garnish each serving with a drizzle of cream and sprinkling of fresh thyme leaves and sliced scallion greens.

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