Farm Fresh Peas
|Right Food for the Season - Early Summer|
|Written by Jane Ward|
Almost exactly a year ago I was in a restaurant in New York’s midtown east lunching on a pea flan. Any good custard – whether sweet or savory – should taste rich, creamy, almost silky, and this lunch’s flan was very, very good. Perfect really, with a slight quiver at its center. But the purée of English peas, the soul of this custard, was what gave the dish its character.
The restaurant’s presentation was simple but flavorful: the flan with its delicate sweetness and the pale green color of a very young moss was front and center, garnished with a scattering of local fava beans, new spring onions, tiny red-gold mushrooms. A foamy butter sauce pulled it all together. The dish was earthy and sophisticated at the same time, a testament to a sure hand at the helm of the kitchen.
And a testament to the pea itself. Fresh, the vegetable is humble in size and attitude but at the same time possesses a refined and almost elegant sweetness.
Still, ask your friends, neighbors, and family members about their least favorite vegetable and I’ll bet you’ll get an earful about peas. Pea horror stories are almost universal (a close second is the green bean). Nearly everyone I’ve asked has shared some version of a story of sitting at the dinner table long after everyone else had left, staring down a plate of peas. The ultimatum “no leaving the dinner table until you’ve finished your supper” almost universally prompts a battle of wills and breeds only bad feelings for the poor pea.
Remember, though, that peas of a childhood of 20, 30, or 40 years ago most likely came from a can or, slightly better, the deep freeze, but even a flash frozen pea suffers when cooked at length to a dull shade of army tent green. Commercial canning and freezing may be convenient because with them any season can be pea season, but the best peas are eaten in their season, and only in season. Less processing and the briefest journey from farm to table will go a long way to making peas a favorite. As they should be.
Pea season in New England is now, early summer, and you will find fresh shelling peas for the next week or two everywhere your local farm fresh produce can be found: farm stands, farmers’ markets, and CSA shares. Eat them fresh out of the shell or steamed and served with a little butter and salt; throw handfuls into your favorite pasta, couscous, or risotto recipe during the last minute or two of cooking. The bright green color and flavor brightens any dish. Add a little lemon zest along with the peas and you’ll be in sublime taste territory.
After that lunch in New York I recreated the restaurant pea flan for home. I can never get enough peas when they are in season, served up any which way. But an individual serving of this flan is several silky spoonfuls of heaven for me, the absolute essence of fresh peas.
Individual Fresh Pea Flans
1 ½ cups heavy cream
large strips of lemon zest from one lemon (about 8)
2 cups shelled green peas
½ tsp. salt
pinch of sugar
3 eggs and 1 egg yolk, lightly beaten
pea tendrils, snipped chives, or braised young scallions for garnish
butter or non-stick spray for the baking dishes
Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Butter or spray 8 small (3-3/4 ounce) ramekins or 4 large (5-inch) crème brulee dishes. Set these in a shallow baking dish (I used a one-inch deep jelly roll pan lined with a sheet of parchment). Begin to heat some water in a kettle for a hot water bath.
Using a vegetable peeler, cut large strips of zest from the lemon. In a small saucepan, heat the cream along with the strips of lemon zest over medium heat until the cream develops bubbles along the side of the pan. Add the peas to the cream and gently simmer these for about 5 minutes when they are tender. Remove pan from the heat and remove all the lemon zest from the cream using a pair of tongs. Add the salt and sugar to the cream mixture and stir to dissolve.
Pour the peas and cream into a blender and process until the pea mixture is fairly smooth. Pour a little of the puree into the lightly beaten eggs and beat these together to temper the eggs. Add the egg mixture back to the blender jar and, with a few short pulses, mix everything together just until blended.
Pour the custard into the prepared ramekins or crème brulee dishes, filling either choice to within a quarter-inch of the dish’s rim. Carefully pour the boiling water into the baking dish, halfway up the sides of whichever dish you are using for baking. Lightly butter or spray with non-stick spray the center of a piece of foil then lay this loosely over the baking dishes, buttered side down.
Carefully move the baking dish into the preheated oven. Bake at 300 degrees for 30-40 minutes (begin checking at 25 minutes). Custards should look just set with a slight quiver in the center when done. They will continue to set as they cool. As a last resort, slide a sharp knife in the center of one of the custards. The knife should come out clean.
Allow the flans to cool on a cooling rack to warm or lukewarm, and serve as a first course or light lunch dish along with a big spoon and the garnish of your choice.