Eager, young hands reach through the tangle of vines, seeking a package of peas. An emerald pod is plucked from a reluctant branch, sending a wave of shivers and shakes down the garden row. But the little, towheaded boy misses the dance of the vines as he pops open his prize, extracting the peas within, one by one.
This was the way my youngest ate his peas. Even in later years, when the average teenage palate is piqued more by processed foods, Ryan — the Great Pea Hunter — could be found in the garden in search of sweet, green game.
Such children are wise, for they understand an important characteristic of fresh peas: once picked, their sugar rapidly turns to starch. Even a two-hour lag time between garden and meal can diminish the sweetness beyond a youngster's liking.
But if you think shelling peas went out with the rotary-dial telephone — and besides, who has time? — think again. In a world fast-forwarded to a frenzied state, working your way through a bowl of pea pods gives you time to evaluate what's important in life and what isn't. So if you haven't done it in a while, give it a try.
To shell garden peas, snap off the top of the pod and pull the string down the side, pushing open the side seam in the process. With only the slightest amount of encouragement from thumb or index finger, the peas will pop right out. Figure on about 1 to 11/3 cups of shelled peas per pound of whole peas (in pod). Unless you turn the task over to the resident, fresh-pea fiend, in which case, you better figure on TWO pounds unshelled per cup of shelled.
Of course, as we're waiting for those spring-into-summer peas to ripen, we can enjoy pea shoots. Although a prominent ingredient in Asian cuisine for eons, they're fairly new on the U.S. culinary radar, showing up at farmers markets and in community-supported agriculture boxes.
Their soft, tender leaves with spiralling tendrils and crunchy stems provide a hint of pea flavor. Use them raw in salads or lightly sauteed for a simple sidekick to anything off the grill.
Several years ago, when plotting the menu for my annual summer dinner at Tyee Winery here in Corvallis, I decided that pea shoots would be a delightful garnish on the salad course. So three weeks before the July event, I simply planted several flats of sugar-snap pea seeds, just enough for the 150 guests I'd be feeding. On the eve of the dinner, the shoots were about 4 inches tall, and I was able to harvest. They were, of course, a hit.
Aside from their garnishing potential, pea shoots taste wonderful in soups when added at the last minute or tucked into a tortilla roll-up or pocket-bread filling.
Jan Roberts-Dominguez is a Corvallis food writer, artist and author of "Oregon Hazelnut Country, the Food, the Drink, the Spirit" and four other cookbooks. Readers can contact her by email at email@example.com or obtain additional recipes and food tips on her blog at www.janrd.com.