[one_half][S]mall details often tell you a lot. For instance, you can usually tell someone’s really into clothes by checking out their accessories. Shoes, socks, belt, watch. Someone who doesn’t care will figure, No one’s looking at my socks. On the other hand, are they kinda funky? Like in a cool way, not an odiferous way? Yeah. Didn’t happen by accident. You kind of have to go out of your way to buy funky socks. That’s someone who’s not capable of letting it slide. Same goes for food. When I’m at a restaurant, I know the kitchen is totally geeked out when they send out an absolute killer soup or salad. Doesn’t happen all that often, actually. Sure, if you’re going high end and paying at least eighty bucks for your meal—it better be good. But what about a more casual spot, like a neighborhood restaurant, or a bistro? How many lentil soups have you had where you honestly thought, This is the bomb… ? Whenever that happens (and for me, that was perhaps once), I’m really excited about the rest of the meal, because I know that kitchen’s too proud to send out another fucking chunky, flavorless lentil soup with carrots.
Given my opinion of soup-as-window-to-a-kitchen’s-soul, perhaps it was a bit ambitious for me to decide, on the day of my (already overly ambitious) dinner party, to add english pea soup to the menu. I had originally bought the peas for a salad, but was concerned that most of the peas would simply accumulate at the bottom of the bowl and then be eaten separately from the greens, or not eaten at all. Then I remembered this cool post on Eatfoo about making a consommé out of pea shells. I wanted to try that, so I decided to wing it with a soup recipe and see how things went. Had I ever made soup before? Of course not. OK, my first post was about soup. But I think Korean soups are a different animal. I mean, to my knowledge, no one makes creamy, pureed soups in Korea. If so, those people have not immigrated here and served said soup to me.
At some point that day, I had what I thought was a pretty good soup. Then I thought, You can never add too much sour cream. Apparently you can. Just barely. I had to make a judgement call as to whether it was OK to send the course out. It didn’t taste awful—it was just out of balance. I hadn’t bought enough peas, so the flavor kind of disappeared in all that sour cream. I went back and forth about this, but ended up serving it. Here it is—this pale, pathetic-looking thing:
Reactions were decidedly mixed. Marc says he liked it. Bernadette ate the whole thing, but didn’t comment. I knew I would get an honest opinion from Naya, their nine-year-old son. Eh. It’s so-so. Thanks, kid. That’s actually the answer I needed, but understandably did not get from the grown-ups. But I knew there was a great soup in there. I tasted a glimpse of it during prep, and I felt certain I would have to go back and try it again.
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The week after my dinner party, I was on a mission to find more peas. I knew they wouldn’t have any at my local grocery, so I turned to The Mission Bay Farmers’ Market, which has been a welcome addition to our culinary wasteland of a campus. It’s small and doesn’t have the most exotic ingredients, but does have reliably good produce. I make it a point to stop by every Wednesday to take a break from endless meetings and benchwork. What I found weren’t the prettiest shells I’d ever seen, but the peas themselves were fresh, and still a bit sweet. This time I bought 4 lbs, to make certain that I wouldn’t run out.
Last spring at around this time, Erin made the Zuni Cafe’s Pasta alla Carbonara, and was excited to have found fresh english peas for the occasion. A couple things stood out to me about that experience: (1) In this context, the fresh peas tasted pretty much the same as frozen peas. (2) For a one-and-a-half-year-old, Esme was pretty good at shelling peas, and seemed to really enjoy doing it. She’s always been a busy kid. I try to allow my daughter to “help” me cook whenever I can. She insists on pouring the dry oatmeal into her bowl before I microwave it, wants to have her hand on the measuring cup as I add water, etc. I thought she would get a kick out of helping shell peas again, despite likely not remembering the work she did last year. So I let her have at it.
At first, she was shelling like a champ. She’d sometimes miss the peas in the corner of the pod, but went about her work at an impressive clip. She particularly liked throwing the empty shells into the large mixing bowl, where I had been collecting them. So much so, that she eventually just started throwing intact pods in there. I had to gently distract her, so that I could go back, fish out the good ones (which was not trivial), and finish the job.
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A worthwhile decision to make, though I didn’t see any mention of this in any of the recipes I read online, is whether to use your peas raw or cooked. To some extent, it depends on the freshness and age of the peas. If they are mostly on the small side and are tender, juicy, and sweet, I am very much in favor of using them raw. I like being able to highlight the more delicate flavors that elude us for 3/4 of the year. If the peas are more mature, large enough to fill most of the volume of the pod, or are at all starchy, you probably want to cook them. Either method will yield a fine soup, and a good portion of the flavor will come from your shell stock, which you can’t get from the frozen section. Cooking them accomplishes two things. First, it improves the yield of the recipe. Unless you have an extremely powerful blender, a purée of raw peas will leave behind a significant amount of pulp. This will accumulate in your strainer and less will make it into the soup. Secondly, cooking, even a little bit, tends to mellow out the flavors. Raw peas can be a bit grassy-tasting, but a quick blanch can take that edge off. A superficial benefit to cooking the peas is that (as long as you don’t overcook them) you can get more vibrant color. Something to keep in mind is that any amount of cooking begins to summon the richer, split-pea flavor that is for the most part absent from fresh snap peas, english peas, etc. The longer you cook, the bigger role that family of flavors will play, so it depends on what you want.
Let’s start with the consommé.
English pea shell consommé
about 4 lbs fresh english peas in the shell
kosher or sea salt
Make sure to pop a couple of the pods open at the market and taste the peas. They lose flavor rapidly after picking (and even more rapidly after being shelled). Ideally, you want peas that you would have been happy to eat raw. I’ve made this with young, immaculate shells as well as the slightly wizened shells pictured here. I couldn’t tell a big difference, so don’t be put off by discolored shells. Remove peas and reserve. (You may want to enlist a small child to help you with this.) Rinse shells thoroughly. Go through the spent casings and discard any obviously rotting or excessively dirty ones. If there are a lot of woody stems attached to the end of the pod, as there were here, I would go through with a pair of scissors and cut those off. For really young pods, this isn’t really necessary.
In a large stock pot, barely cover the cleaned and trimmed shells with water and bring to a boil, optionally adding about 1/2 tsp of salt. Immediately lower heat and simmer for 20 mins. Remove from heat and strain solids. At this point, the stock will be dilute and very lightly colored. Reduce at medium-low heat until the stock becomes golden and intensely flavored. For me, this happened at about 1/4 to 1/3 of the original volume. (You can mark the original level with a rubber band on the handle of a wooden spoon to track how much you’ve reduced the stock.) Periodically taste the stock and add salt, if desired. Be careful not to add too much at the beginning, since the stock will continue to become more concentrated. You can cook it down quite a bit more, if you want. In the Eatfoo post where I saw this recipe, David reduced the stock by 20-fold. Yowza!
Starting from 4 lbs of peas, this made 6 – 8 cups.
Incidentally, this consommé would be a fantastic vegetarian option to use as a stock for my kong namul guk recipe. For the soup itself, I consulted quite a few recipes, but ended up essentially adapting the Chilled Pea and Tarragon Soup from Bon Appétit.
English pea soup
about 1 lb of shelled english peas (I didn’t weigh them, but I think 4 lbs of pods yielded about 4 C of peas)
2 T butter
2 shallots, finely chopped
4 C english pea shell consommé
1 tsp chopped fresh tarragon
2 T heavy cream
2 T sour cream
freshly cracked black pepper
In a medium saucepan, heat butter until bubbles subside and sauté shallots at medium heat until tender, but not brown (about 3 mins). Add consommé and bring to a boil. Add peas and salt and boil until peas are bright and just tender (no more than 3 – 4 mins). Remove from heat and add to blender along with tarragon, both creams, and several turns of black pepper. Purée until smooth (do this in small batches if you have a small blender—safety first!) Correct seasoning and strain through a fine sieve or chinois. I prefer not to force the contents through the mesh, because then you end up forcing fibers through that you were trying to strain out on the first place. If it’s going too slowly, you can tap the sieve and/or use a spoon to stir and redistribute the unstrained fraction. I can’t resist eating the pulp, but you can also just throw it away. Allow soup to cool and serve chilled or at room temperature. If desired, garnish with fresh tarragon and some sour cream. If you use heavy cream, as I did for the top photo, it creates a “slick” on top of the soup, which you may or may not find disturbing.
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The Esme rating
Try as I might, I could not convince Esme to taste the soup. She may have had flashbacks to her first experiences with solid baby food. Puréed peas were the first thing that she absolutely hated. My mom got such a kick out of watching Esme grimace with disgust (and perhaps a sense of betrayal?) that she kept feeding it to her to elicit that reaction. Esme does like frozen peas, however. Not just peas that were once frozen. She likes them straight out of the freezer.
Esme, do you like these peas better, or frozen peas?
Frozen peas. But these are pretty good, too. They’re too crunchy.
Did she like the fresh peas enough to eat more than a few? Hard to say, really (see left).
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The Ben rating
So Erin and I recently went to this cool restaurant in the Mission called Schmidt’s (as in Christiane Schmidt, of Walzwerk). They sell these light-as-air pea pancakes that beautifully juxtapose deep-fried crunchies with peas so fresh I find myself wondering whether fryolator is their natural habitat. Anyway, after all this, I saw a pea soup with lemon and mint on their menu. I had to order it and check out the competition.
All’s I’m saying is that the head-to-head score is Ben/Esme: 1, Christiane: 0. Not even close, actually. Though I’m sure she’ll come back to haunt us in the braised red cabbage category …