Over on Salon.com, food writer Francis Lam, formerly of Gourmet, hosts a weekly food writing and recipe challenge, the Salon Kitchen Challenge. Francis announces a theme as broad as “a meal for someone you love” or as narrow as “egg salad,” and entrants are asked to write a story and a recipe fitting within the theme. The prize is the honor of being selected by such a talented food writer, as well as publication in the Food section of Salon. This is my entry for this week’s theme, “spring peas.”
There’s a cute little children’s book, Little Pea (by Amy Krouse Rosenthal, Chronicle Books, 2005) in which the protagonist, a little green pea, of course, struggles with his parents over finishing his meal. Like human parents, the pea parents cajole, OK bribe, the Little Pea: “If you don’t finish your candy, you can’t have dessert.” The twist, which will make you smile and make a preschooler roll on the floor with the giggles, is that dinner is candy, and dessert: a heaping bowl of spinach!
See, it’s all a matter of perspective. Fresh peas (or fresh peas flash frozen) are naturally sweet and truly candy-like, as far as vegetables go. They figure highly in the repertoire of all parents introducing vegetables to their children: they’re convenient, and frozen peas can be thrown into anything kids eat, including soups, pasta and macaroni and cheese.
They’re also one of the recommended first vegetables to be introduced to infants. But have you seen baby food? The color of puréed peas is not very appetizing, the yellowish pea green that comes from boiling the life out of any green vegetable. Babies love to spit out the stuff.
But freshly made baby food, that is different. There are expensive baby food making machines available now for a hefty sum, which are very sanitary looking (pure white), in the all-in-one manner popular these days, and French, to boot. These machines allow you to steam and process your ingredients into babyworthy pureés in one fell swoop. But you need neither gadgets nor an excess of money to make your own baby food. I learned a great tip early in my motherhood, of cooking and puréeing (using a hand immersion/stick blender) any fruits, vegetables, or meats and then freezing them in ice cube trays. I did this not out of any sense of maternal superiority, but because it was quick and easy. It was convenient (I could cook the same ingredients I used for our adult meals, and didn’t have to keep going to the store to buy special baby food); inexpensive; and the best way I knew to control exactly what my baby ate. Each frozen cube of pureé forms a 1 oz. or 2 Tbsp.portion of baby food with truly nothing added, at a fraction of the price of processed baby food in jars, with the bonus of being able to mix and match. My kids enjoyed such combinations as chicken with yam and pear, spinach and potato, edamame, and of course, peas. Quickly cooked, puréed and then immediately frozen, these peas retained their spring greenness, unlike the stuff in jars.
The only problem with cultivating a palate for freshly made baby food was what to do when we traveled and did not have access to a kitchen. When my older daughter was about 9 months old and already a good 3 or 4 months into enjoying the pleasures of homemade food, we went to London. She was still nursing then, but ate her 2 oz. of solid food about three times a day. I thought, she’s a baby, if she’s hungry she’ll eat any baby food. I guessed wrong (and probably should have test driven my theory before the trip; live and learn). Despite the tantalizing array of organic, fair trade baby food available in Tesco, with such exoticized ingredients as courgette(zucchini) and aubergine (eggplant), she would have none of it. It still looked like earth colored mush, and I didn’t even want to taste it myself, to be honest. So for a while, all she got was milk. That was fine, but not ideal. So whenever we had a meal, I looked for food suitable for a toothless infant. We ate a lot of curries, which met the pureéd requirement, but were far too spicy for a little babe. So we were relieved when we were eating fish and chips, and ordered a side of mushy peas for her, despite concerns about the salt. Not the same as mama’s, but she ate it. Mushy peas to the rescue!
My early experiments with gourmet baby cuisine (and a large helping of luck) have thankfully produced two children who will eat pretty much any vegetable, so I don’t need to resort to bribes or deception (not for that, anyway). They still have a preference, I am glad, for raw or lightly cooked vegetables, and they appreciate the delicate sweetness of fresh peas. They also think Little Pea is a hoot.
A modern and sophisticated interpretation of the classic English mushy peas that saved our daughter from starving on that trip to London is a lovely chilled minted pea soup from the chef at San Francisco’s Coi. Its sweetness is tempered by the tang of buttermilk, which gives it both a richness and silkiness that elevate it from its simple origins. Inspired by the inventive Anglo-Indian cuisine I ate in London, I’ve adapted this recipe by garnishing with a swirl of an Indian spice-infused oil, with a nod to the mint chutneys that I love with samosas, pappadums, and kebabs. For a summer luncheon on the pea theme, serve this with a salad of greens accented with sugar snap peas and garnished with a flourish of fresh, flowering pea shoots, if you can get them, and a loaf of crusty bread on the side.
And then you can have your dessert.
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Chilled Anglo-Indian Minted Pea Soup
Loosely adapted from a recipe published in The New York Times July 1, 2007, by Daniel Patterson, the chef at Coi in San Francisco.
2 cups buttermilk
4 cups freshly shelled or frozen green peas, plus more for garnish
Salt to taste
10 mint leaves
Freshly ground black pepper
Garnishes: Indian Spiced Oil (recipe below), cilantro
1. In a medium saucepan, bring the buttermilk to a simmer and add 4 cups of peas and a large pinch of salt. Simmer for 1 to 2 minutes over medium heat, stirring often so that the buttermilk does not boil over. The peas should not be fully cooked and still have a slight bite to them.
2. Transfer the peas and liquid immediately to a blender with the mint leaves and, starting on low speed, carefully blend (holding the lid on firmly with a dishcloth), working up to high speed for 60 seconds.
3. In order to preserve the vibrant color and flavor of the peas, the soup must be cooled immediately. Pass through a fine-mesh sieve into a bowl, then rest the bowl inside a larger bowl full of ice water. Stir continuously until cool, tasting occasionally; you will notice that the soup becomes sweeter as it cools. Adjust seasoning with salt and black pepper. Refrigerate until cold.
4. To serve, ladle soup into bowls, shot glasses or Moroccan tea glasses, as I used here.
5. Use a squeeze bottle to swirl a stream of the herb-infused oil on the top, and garnish with fresh peas, a sprig of mint and freshly ground black pepper.
Indian Spiced Oil
1 cup olive oil (not extra virgin, which is too flavorful for this)
1 Tbsp cumin seeds
3-4 cloves of garlic, crushed
2 quarter sized slices of fresh ginger root, slightly crushed
2 Tbsp of minced onion
2 fresh Thai green or serrano chiles, sliced
2 Tbsp minced cilantro
1. heat a frying pan over medium flame
2. when warm, add in cumin seeds and lightly toast for a few seconds until aromatic, being careful not to burn them. Remove toasted seeds from pan.
3. add olive oil to the pan, and heat over medium flame
4. add garlic, ginger, onion, chiles and cilantro, and sauté for a few minutes until the onions are translucent
5. take off heat, and allow the oil mixture to sit for at least an hour to allow flavors to infuse.
6. strain oil. Add the toasted cumin seeds to the strained oil and transfer the oil and cumin mixture to a bottle with a squeeze tip.
6. Use to garnish chilled soup as above.
© Linda Shiue 2010