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David Lissner
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Eat this! Fresh English peas, a highlight of spring

Nothing beats peas fresh from the pod.

Nothing beats peas fresh from the pod.

What it is: Fresh English peas (Pisum sativum) are one of the delights of spring, a seasonal vegetable that really transcends its canned and frozen forms. The green legumes have a bright, sweet flavor that just pops in your mouth. Only about 5 percent of the U.S. pea crop is sold fresh.

Where it comes from: Peas probably originated in Middle Asia and Ethiopia, and were in use in Central Europe by the Bronze Age. Archeologists have unearthed peas nearly 3,000 years old. They were mainly used dried until the 17th century, when green peas became all the rage in the French court as Françoise d’Aubigné, marquise de Maintenon, wrote in 1696: “This subject of peas continues to absorb all others, the anxiety to eat them, the pleasure of having eaten them and the desire to eat them again, are the three great matters which have been discussed by our princes for four days past. Some ladies, even after having supped at the Royal table and well supped too, returning to their own homes at the risk of suffering from indigestion, will again eat peas before going to bed. It is both a fashion and a madness.”

Amateur plant breeder Thomas Edward Knight of Downton, near Salisbury, England, developed a variety of sweet green pea in the 18th century, and subsequent propagation by British plant breeders gave them the name “English pea.”

California is the largest U.S. producer of green peas today, followed by New York, South Carolina, Oregon, Idaho, Texas, New Mexico, Florida, Washington, New Jersey and Virginia. Imported peas come from Guatemala, Mexico, China, Honduras and the Dominican Republic.

What to do with it: Look for peapods that are firm, crisp and bright green. The peas should fill the whole pod but not be too bulgy. Underfilled pods mean the peas are immature, over-stuffed peapods are too mature, and neither will be as sweet as perfectly ripe peas in a full pod. Fresh peas have a very short shelf life, so use them within a day or two.

Shelling peas takes time, but it’s absolutely worth the effort. Wash the peapods just before shelling them. Snap off the stem, and then pull the string down the length of the pod to pop it open. If you don’t have time to shell them, for an informal meal, you can steam the peas in their pods and then eat them by squeezing the cooked pods through your teeth.

Cook fresh peas simply in as little liquid as possible. Fresh peas need very little cooking time, no more than 5 to 8 minutes.

At Shaw’s Crab House in River North and Schaumburg, Chef Arnulfo Tellez pairs fresh peas with seasonal Alaskan halibut in a fresh pea broth. Continue reading for his recipe.

Shaw’s Crab House’s halibut with fresh peas and English pea broth.

Shaw’s Crab House’s halibut with fresh peas and English pea broth.

Shaw’s Crab House’s grilled Alaskan halibut with bacon, pearl onions, pea tendrils and fresh English pea broth
Chef Arnulfo “Arnie” Tellez

Arnulfo Tellez

Arnulfo Tellez

Sweet pea broth:
1 cup fish stock
1 ounce fresh English peas
1 teaspoon butter
Strip of lime zest
1/3 teaspoon salt

Caramelized onions:
2 to 3 ounces pearl onions, cleaned and peeled
1 teaspoon butter
2 teaspoons sugar

4 6- to 8-ounce halibut fillets
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon white pepper
2 tablespoons canola-olive oil blend

1 to 2 slices bacon, diced
6 ounces fresh English peas
1-1/2 ounces fresh pea tendrils (optional)
1 tablespoon lemon thyme oil (recipe follows)
4 sprigs fresh thyme

Make the sweet pea broth: Simmer the stock in a saucepan until reduced to about 3/4 cup. Add the peas and continue simmering until they are just cooked. Once the peas are cooked, take off the heat and add the lime zest. Puree the pea liquid in the blender and slowly add the butter. Blend until it is smooth and silky. Strain.

Caramelize the onions: In a sauce pan, heat the butter and the onions over medium heat, coating the onions in the butter. Allow the butter to get to a golden brown and then add the sugar, stirring until it melts and caramelizes the onions. Set aside.

Cook the halibut: Prepare a medium-hot fire in a barbecue grill, or heat a ridged grill pan on the stove. Season the halibut with kosher salt and white pepper and lightly brush with oil. Grill the fish flesh side down to make the criss-cross marks on the fish.

Turn the halibut over and continue to grill until done, 7 to 10 minutes.

To finish: While the fish is cooking, cook the bacon in a saute pan. Discard the fat and add the fresh peas and caramelized pearl onions. Once warmed, add the pea tendrils until slightly wilted; remove from the pan and divide among 4 bowls and place a piece of fish on top of each.

Add 3 tablespoons of sweet pea broth around each plate and drizzle the lemon thyme oil over the fish as well as a few drops in the broth. Garnish with fresh thyme. 4 servings.

Lemon thyme oil

2 teaspoons fresh thyme leaves, finely chopped
1 cup lemon-flavored oil
1 teaspoon kosher salt

Finely chop the thyme and mix with the salt and the oil. Allow mixture to sit for 30 minutes then strain through a coffee filter.

Store refrigerated in a labeled squirt bottle. Allow to warm to room temperature before using. Yield: 1 cup.

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