Pea madness

Pea madness

Savvy seasonal eaters know that preserving garden produce buys time for its enjoyment. But when seeds send up tender shoots overnight and blossoms burst open everywhere, meals should be just as fresh and spontaneous.

I'm as much in favor of planning for lean times as the next home gardener. Preserving satisfies my innate food-hoarding tendencies. Although I know the quality of canned and frozen foods declines with time, as long as I have a jar or bag of my hard-earned bounty still stashed away, I feel as if the flavors aren't fading memories of the growing season.

Just as it took a few years to find my way around canning, freezing and pickling, it took some time to recognize which items — tomatoes, tree fruits, cucumbers, berries, garlic, peppers — actually deserve such fates. Although commercially frozen products suggest otherwise, peas are not in these ranks.

I'm sure some prolific gardeners and food preservers will disagree and, hopefully, jump in with suggestions. But my attempts at freezing have been highly disappointing. I've dutifully blanched zucchini, cauliflower and peas, then individually quick-frozen the bite-sized pieces on cookie sheets before transferring to freezer bags for storage.

The results are passable but not preferable, slightly mushy and musty-tasting rather than crisp and bursting with flavor. While these veggies have some uses in the kitchen, they're not rewarding enough to sacrifice their garden freshness, even if it means eating them at every meal for weeks on end.

Unlike many pieces of produce, peas never overstay their welcome. With a short season and sweetness that can't be captured for longer than a day off the vine, peas are the essence of late spring and early summer.

Last year's cool, wet spring pushed the pea harvest off until mid-June, and searing temperatures later that month cut the crop short. With similar spring climes, this year stands to be a repeat of last.

While snow peas fare well in my garden, shelling peas always seem to struggle along. For that reason, I've been lobbying my mother-in-law and gardening companion to plant more and more of the latter. After all, according to a recent article, it takes 15 to 20 plants to feed one person and a pound of peas in the pod to yield 1 to 1 1/4 cups of shelled peas.

Many cooks may balk at the prospect of so much shelling, but I don't mind the mundane task. As local farmers who growing shelling peas have confirmed, the chore actually appeals to customers yearning to recall simpler times.

Nearly 10,000 years after humans started eating wild peas, the fresh, green, immature cultivars became all the rage with Italian, French and English royalty. In the court of France's Louis XIV, women smuggled raw peas to their bedrooms and ate them like candy, which the French dubbed "pea madness."

The English soon developed new varieties intended to be eaten as fresh as possible, hence the term "English" to describe shelling peas all these years later. Pea madness still can be seen today as gardeners gobble them out of the pods before they reach the kitchen.

Whether it's pea madness or capricious weather diminishing crop quantities, we'd all do well to seize the moment — and mere handfuls of peas — by tossing them into dishes where they can really shine: pastas, risottos or salads, for example.

Consider this salad, a riff on traditional Italian panzanella in which fresh peas replace tomatoes. Fresh mint, rather than basil, plays up a classic complement to peas.

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