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Edible Pod Peas
John Tullock

As with so many good things to eat, edible-pod peas, or "snow peas," are European in origin, despite their association with Asian food in the minds of most Americans. In fact, according to Rosa Lo San Ross in her book, Beyond Bok Choy, the Chinese name for this vegetable means "Holland pea." Eaten in China since at least the seventh century, snow peas shine in the dish "Velvet Chicken with Snow Peas." The French call these peas mange tout, or "eat everything" peas, and use them in a version of that delightful fresh pea soup, Potage St. Germain.

Much less familiar to Western cooks are pea shoots, the young, tender growing tips of the pea plant. Their flavor is reminiscent of the pods and peas themselves, but more delicate. Many of the uses to which this delectable rarity are placed remind one of recipes for watercress.

Pea plants produce their fruits (yes, botanically, the pea pod is a fruit) a few at a time, so a given harvest will contain pods of varying ages. The choicest and most tender pods will be bright green in color, with the peas barely formed and oval in appearance when a pod is viewed with strong back-lighting. For any variety, once the peas are round and full, the pods will contain strings that should be removed. If the pods are not bright green, it is best to shell out the peas, remove any strings and cook the pods separately. They will turn green when properly blanched. This is precisely the technique employed in making Cream of Snow Pea Soup. For use as whole pods, the flat pod types can be trimmed by cutting out a little triangle at each end. This is considered a gesture of love in China, from the cook to the guests. Perhaps that is because it is a tedious chore. The presentation, however, is sensational. Leaving the pods intact, including the little cluster of leaves at the stem end, is also attractive. A basket of fresh pods can be dumped into a pot of boiling water and blanched without prior preparation. You will find that this makes them easy to shell, string or trim.

Pea shoots may arrive with the flowers intact. Remove undamaged flowers and store them in the refrigerator to use to garnish the finished dish. Rinse the shoots in cold water, spin dry, and store in a plastic bag with a paper towel to absorb excess moisture. They are best eaten the same day, but will keep a few days in the refrigerator.

Our cool greenhouse is producing an abundant harvest of several types of edible-pod peas. Sugar Snap, a variety introduced about 20 years ago in the United States, forms a thick, full pod like a shell pea, but nevertheless remains tender until fully mature. This variety is stringless when young, and can be added directly to stir fries or used as a side dish. Blanch the pods for 3 minutes, drain and refresh and store covered and refrigerated. Toss in hot butter and dribble with lemon juice just before serving alongside any meat main course.

We also grow a French variety, Carouby de Maussane, not only because of its beautiful bicolored flowers but also for its huge, flat pods with exceptional sweetness. When the pods curve sideways and the rounded peas are showing, this pea is our choice for soup. Immature flat pods, which can be nearly six inches in length, make superb hors d'oeuvres. Blanch, then open them lengthwise and fill with cream cheese or fresh goat cheese. Flavor the filling with salt, pepper, lemon juice and finely minced fresh mint leaves.

Velvet Chicken with Snow Peas

The procedure for making velvet chicken results in a delicious, perfectly white slice of meat that pairs well with the bright green peas.

Thinly slice boneless, skinless chicken breast fillets, cutting across the grain holding the knife at an angle to produce oval pieces about one-eighth inch in thickness. For four servings, use about one to one and a half pounds of meat. Place the slices in a bowl and toss with 1 teaspoon soy sauce, 1 egg white, 2 tablespoons cornstarch, and a pinch of salt. Allow to sit for 10 minutes or so. Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add the chicken, stir gently to separate, and watch carefully. As soon as the water begins to boil again, turn off the heat and let stand for one minute. Drain, plunge into ice water to cool and drain very well. Dry the chicken pieces in a clean kitchen towel or paper towels and store, covered and refrigerated, until ready to use.

In another pot of boiling water, blanch a half pound (or more, if desired) of fresh, perfect snow peas, snap peas or a combination for one minute. Drain, refresh in ice water, and drain well again. Store in the refrigerator until you are ready to complete the dish.

Combine in a small bowl 1 tablespoon cornstarch, 1/4 cup oyster sauce, 1 teaspoon Shao-Hsing wine (or dry sherry), a pinch of sugar, and 1/2 cup chicken stock. Slice two coins of ginger from a fresh root, each about one-eighth inch thick. Peel the slices and cut them into fine julienne. Peel and thinly slice a clove of garlic. Trim the green parts from three or four inner stalks of bok choy, reserving them for another use, and cut the stalks into pieces about 3/4 inch square.

Heat a wok or heavy cast iron skillet over medium-high heat until hot and dry. Add 2 teaspoons of vegetable oil, and a sprinkling of salt. Add the garlic and ginger and stir fry for 30 seconds. Add the bok choy and stir fry another minute or less. Add the peas and the chicken slices and stir fry until heated through. Add the sauce ingredients and stir until thickened.

Serve at once with steamed long grain rice.

John's Vegetarian Pea Shoots

This is another stir fry adapted from Charlie Trotter's Vegetables, by Chicago super-chef Charlie Trotter.

Peel and seed a cucumber and slice it into crescent moon shapes. Sprinkle with salt, a dribble of rice wine vinegar and a pinch of sugar. Place an ice cube on top of the bowl, and set aside in the refrigerator. Cut one fourth of a one-pound block of tofu into small cubes. Toss these in a bowl with a couple of tablespoons of tamari sauce, and allow to sit in the refrigerator at least an hour.

Slice a quarter pound of shiitake mushrooms into julienne, after removing the inedible stems. Chop two tablespoons of Japanese pickled sushi ginger (beni shoga) into julienne. Rinse and remove the tips from four ounces of mung bean sprouts. Remove the flowers from four ounces of pea shoots, reserving the blooms for garnish. Chop about two tablespoons of fresh coriander.

Combine in a small bowl, 1 tablespoon miso paste (white or yellow), 2 tablespoons water, 1 tablespoon rice vinegar, 1 teaspoon sugar, 1/4 teaspoon ground mustard (such as Colman's), freshly ground black pepper and salt to taste. (Miso may be very salty, taste and add more salt only if needed.) If the dressing seems too thick, add more water by dribbles until you have the consistency you prefer. If it is too thin, add a little more miso.

Cook a pot of long grain rice. Trotter suggests Thai jasmine rice, but basmati or plain white rice will also give good results.

Heat a wok until it is hot and dry and add 2 tablespoons of Japanese style sesame oil. If this is unavailable, use plain vegetable oil and add a few drops of Chines sesame oil at the end of cooking. The Japanese oil is made from untoasted sesame seeds and is light in color, while the Chinese sesame oil, the one usually found in the "ethnic" section of the supermarket, is made from toasted seeds and is dark brown. The flavor of the Chinese oil is too strong to use it as for frying. Sesame oil burns easily, so the heat for this stir fry should be a little lower than normal, unless you substitute vegetable oil. Just as the oil begins to smoke, add the shiitake and stir fry until they are lightly browned on the edges. Add the tofu, with its marinade, and cook 2 or 3 minutes, or until most of the liquid is cooked out. Add the bean sprouts and pea shoots and cook until the pea shoots just begin to wilt. Remove from the heat and toss in the drained cucumbers and the pickled ginger.

Place a serving of rice on a plate and mound the stir-fried vegetables attractively beside or upon the rice. Spoon the miso sauce around and garnish with the chopped coriander and the pea blossoms. If you have black sesame seeds in the cupboard, sprinkle a few here and there, as well.

Blanched walnuts or other nuts could be added along with the tofu to make the dish more substantial. For a complete vegetarian Japanese meal, serve this as the main course, preceded by a clear soup. Finish the dinner with a fresh fruit dessert.

John Tullock is an expert gardener and self-taught cook who likes to develop new recipes using his own fresh produce and the best from the local market. His interest in plants and horticulture begin in childhood, and he holds a masters degree in biology from The University of Tennessee. Now a full-time freelance writer and author of six books, Tullock also co-owns "Gardener and Gourmet," a retail business that specializes in rare plants and fine food products.

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