People, hold your breath: pea season is officially upon us.
We wait for this moment all year. And for me, its the absolute most difficult time to be away from home. Sure, Thanksgiving or Easter are difficult because of the traditions. But anyone away from home can make their own Thanksgiving or Easter tradition. Christmas might be really difficult, but with a good attitude you can make the best of any situation. Those holidays are somewhat transferrable and not necessarily bound to any space, time or participants.
But oh, the peas. I'll never be able to recreate this anywhere or with anyone other than this family, on this farm, in this part of upstate NY. It's the seasonality and the connection to the land that you can't move, direct or change. And while its somewhat predictable, you really never know when they are going to arrive. I was excited for the trip home for the 4th of july this year figuring that with a cool, wet spring I'd be there for all the glory. It was a disheartening phone call to get last friday when mom ringed to say "it's time".
"Mom! We have a board meeting!! Couldn't you just cover them up for a few weeks??" Nature don't wait for no one.
We've been doing this for years. My grandparents did it on their farm, their parents did it on their farms, and I'd love to talk to distant relatives in Poland to see if they had the same connection to peas in the motherland. When did it start, I wonder?
I know that in my lifetime I can safely assume my mom was out picking peas with me in the womb. As soon as I grasped dexterity in both thumbs, I could shuck a bushel fast enough to keep up with the adults. If my friend Dawn is reading this she'll remember the time I baited her to come over and watch a movie in high school and forced her to shuck half my share of the peas for the evening. It's been as much a part of my life as...hmm.. well, there's nothing else like it!
Two memories stick out in my head with regard to peas. First, they somehow always remain cool. It will be a stifling hot day and you've shucked a whole bucket and are beaming with pride at the work you just accomplished, sweating the whole way (sucking on a Genny Cream Ale, of course) Now, reward yourself by sticking your whole hand and forearm down into the shucked peas. They are cool, like a huge bucket of lightweight ball bearings that envelop your appendage. Once as a child I stuck my feet into the shucked bucket when no one was looking. What?? They get boiled anyways.
Second, your dominant shucking thumb remains green for a solid two weeks from all the hulling. At least its a pretty shade of green.
I know there are a lot of pea-haters out there. But just hear me out. Its most likely because you had frozen or canned peas from the grocery store growing up. Those store-bought, heavily processed slandering imposters are huge and olive green and mealy or mushy, with thick skins.
These homegrown jewels, blanched and frozen just a few hours after they've been picked and hulled are unlike anything else you've ever had. While the color is bright, so is the flavor. And since they are frozen on the same day as they are harvested, their flavor remains fresh deep into the winter. Take a pack out of the freezer in January to find they are taut and turgid and resist your bite just a teeny bit before giving way with a tiny little "snap" under your teeth. It's guranteed summer in the dead of winter.
The problem is: it's very difficult for me to prove the Integrity of the Pea to you. You see, I'm a hoarder. I'll admit it. Eric will back that statement up since he found out the hard way when he once dropped a few peas on the kitchen floor by accident. I protect my peas with the ferver of a religious zealot. We get a tiny ration per year and I'm going insane waiting for my freezer to be full again. Soooo....maybe if you beg a little and bring me some dessert, I'll share a small part of a bag with you.
Then of course, there's the smell when they are blanched. Grassy, warm and sweet, its a wonder none of us dug our whole faces into the pile of just-blanched peas. At least, not that I know of anyways.
Then the big reward: lunch on the farm at this time of year consisted of a combination of any three items: fried bologna sandwiches with onions and webers mustard, peas and milk, or strawberry shortcake. Or if you were me, all of the above.
Peas and milk is....well, what is it? It's kind of like a soup. Kind of like a stew. Even possibly a poor man's version of a fettucine alfredo with peas. It doesn't really matter what it is and I can't tell you where this recipe came from. Like the peas themselves, they've just always been there
Peas and Milk
This recipe is for two people, but we've doubled or tripled or made a huge pot when the whole family is around. It's simple and easy to amend.
1 quart milk
2 cups fresh peas that have been boiled for just 1 minute and drained
1 (or more) cups cooked and drained short pasta such as shells or elbows
3 tablespoons butter
generous salt and pepper
Put your butter to melt at the bottom of a 2-3 quart saucepan while you boil your fresh peas for just 1 minute and drain them. Add the milk to the butter and season with fresh pepper and about 1/2 tsp salt. Let it simmer for about 4 minutes, stirring often so a skin doesn't develop on top. Add the peas and cooked pasta and simmer for just another mintue to warm everything through.
If you like more of a stew, make a roux first of butter and flour first and add your milk warmed up and slowly. It will thicken significantly and you can add more pasta. A dusting of parmesean cheese is also good when its a thicker stew.
My most heartfelt and sincere thanks to Grandma, Mom, Aunt Karen (photo credits to AK as well) and Aunt Linda and any other worker bees for doing the peas. Can we take a bag out of the freezer to make peas and milk to share over the 4th?