Food: Get fresh

Summer straight from the pod

I have been meaning to write about peas all summer, and worry that it is getting too late. But there still seem to be plenty in the shops. Apart from some little bullets recently, most have been sweet, tender, and how I remember them when I used to sit, podding a paper bag- full, in a deck-chair in the garden. This chore would be preceded by those memorable words from Mum: "What are you doing, stuffing in on a lovely day like this? Get out in the garden and do these peas for me!" Sometimes a "darling" was attached, depending on her mood.

It wasn't such a chore. All it needed was a funny old colander to put the pods in, a blue and white-striped bowl for the peas, and a saunter past the mint patch on the way back to the kitchen. I ate a lot of peas as I was doing it, and would agree with Mum that you were never sure how many servings you would get out of your couple of pounds.

Today we are all much more lazy about domestic chores. That laziness was never so obvious to me as the first time I saw plastic-wrapped trays of shelled fresh peas on sale at Marks & Spencer. I have bought those peas myself. Mind you, I no longer have a deck-chair to sit in, nor a garden into which to be sent. Or, sadly, a Mum. But I would miss having the empty pods if I were making a green, summer-vegetable soup, or the Italian glory of pea dishes, risi e bisi.

Like most of you, I imagine, I am never without a half-used bag of frozen peas in the freezer. Mine are always getting tipped over, leaving a few rolling around and getting iced up and hiding in the cracks under the ice tray. Stray sweetcorn kernels get around a bit, too. I am very happy about using frozen peas, but they are nothing like the fresh ones.

They behave all right, and you don't spend ages waiting for them to turn into greeny-grey bullets. But the frozen pea is always ridiculously sweet. I had always imagined sugar might be added to make them toothsome, but I recently checked the packet and saw no sign of it. I don't mind the sweetness, but it can overtake the pea flavour - particularly if you decide to fashion a soup from them.

In my earlier cooking days, while fiddling around with mousses, I made one from peas - it could almost have been served with custard. Stick to serving frozen peas with old-fashioned roast duck (nicely overcooked, with a crisp skin) or cod with parsley sauce. Tasty autumn lamb cutlets, eaten with mint jelly out of a jar and fluffy mashed potatoes - to which you have added a big knob of butter, resting in a crater made with a spoon - are magnificent eaten with frozen peas and the telly on.

During one of my last holidays with my parents, I can remember eating, in the Dordogne, a cou d'oie farci aux petits pois. The peas were tinned, a dull-green colour, and very sweet. But, my word, they were delicious! I ponder now that the cou might have been out of a tin, too. And, to be honest, there was not much of it.

It was clearly an expensive ingredient, this stuffed goose's neck, as it was not on the menu regional, which my parents urged me eat with them. So a supplement was charged, and I was grudgingly forgiven - mostly by Mother, who was not paying the bill - for exploring my emerging trade. A stuffed goose's neck is not easy to come by, but a vacuum-packed Italian cotechino or zampone sausage could be a pleasing substitute. And I would not dream of making it with deck-chair peas.

Pigeon with peas, serves 4

Pigeon cooked with peas is as common as muck in the French cookery repertoire, but I think you have to use one of those relatively expensive pigeonneau for it to work properly. A wood pigeon is too strongly flavoured, and a little unsophisticated. Tinned peas are the right ones here.

4 French pigeons or squabs

a little softened butter

salt and pepper

4-5 slices of smoked pancetta or streaky bacon, cut into strips

approx 20 small shallots, peeled

1 small glass dry white wine

2 small or one large can of French petits-pois (look for a l'etuvee on the can), drained and rinsed

3-4 sprigs fresh tarragon

Preheat the oven to 425F/220C/gas mark 7. Put the pigeons in a roasting dish, smear with the butter and season. Roast for 10 minutes, basting a couple of times. Remove from the oven, tip the fat into a cast-iron casserole pot and put the pigeons aside to cool. Turn the oven down to 300F/150C/gas mark 2.

Gently cook the pancetta or bacon and the shallots in the decanted fat until well-gilded. Add the wine and reduce by half. Tip in the peas and bury the pigeons in them. Add a little more butter to the pigeon breast if you like. Submerge the tarragon, too. Simmer gently on the stove for a few minutes until you are sure things are hot. Then put a lid on and place in the oven for 30 minutes. Serve directly from the pot. I don't think you need to eat anything else with this.

Petit pois a la francaise, serves 4

I prefer to use fresh peas here, although you can get away with frozen and tinned. If you use frozen, squeeze a little lemon juice over them at the last moment. The mint is not, perhaps, entirely French, but I like it.

200g/7oz button onions, peeled

400g/14oz freshly shelled peas

75g/3oz butter

4-5 tbsp water or light chicken stock

a little salt and white pepper

2 little gem lettuces, shredded

pinch of sugar (only with fresh peas)

4-5 mint leaves, chopped (optional)

Put everything, except the mint, in a pan with a tight-fitting lid. Stew gently until the peas are tender, and most of the liquid and butter have been absorbed. Remove the lid towards the end if the mixture looks too wet (though I quite like the dish a bit sloppy).

Risi e bisi, serves 4

The recipe for this comes from Marcella Hazan's Classic Italian Cookbook (Macmillan). I have always followed this recipe exactly, and it performs beautifully. Signora Hazan says "Risi e bisi is not risotto with peas. It is a soup, although a very thick one." I adore this dish.

half an onion, peeled and chopped

50g/2oz butter

900g/2lb fresh peas (unshelled weight)

salt

900ml/112 pints broth (or light chicken stock)

200g/7oz arborio rice

2 tbsp chopped parsley

50g/2oz freshly grated Parmesan

Put the onion in a pan with the butter and fry over a medium heat until pale gold. Add the peas and salt and gently cook for 2 minutes, stirring frequently. Add 700ml/114 pints of broth, cover, and cook at a very moderate boil for 10 minutes. Add the rice, parsley and the remaining broth, stir, cover, and cook at a slow boil for 15 minutes, or until the rice is tender but al dente - firm to the bite. Stir from time to time while cooking, and taste and check for salt. Just before serving, add the grated cheese, mixing it into the soup.

Finally, I should furnish you with a recipe for cooking fresh peas, as sometimes it just doesn't go right and the peas end up dull and tasteless.

Put the shelled peas into a solid-bottomed pan and just cover with boiling water from the kettle. Add a pinch of sugar and salt, and a sprig of apple mint, preferably, or any other mint to hand. Once the peas are boiling, put on the lid and simmer for several minutes or until tender. Drain off all but a dribble of the cooking water, pick out the mint sprig, and stir in a generous knob of butter. Grind in some freshly milled white pepper and serve immediately.

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