Eating the local foods of early summer should never be anything but a sensual pleasure.
I always feel privileged to have grown up tasting the turn of the seasons, my body sustained on what grew from the labors of my family tilling the red clay soil of my grandparents’ farm. Our bodies themselves were made of that clay, of the sunlight that poured from seemingly endless blue skies and the rain that pounded our ridgetop and bottomland gardens.
I grew up knowing the rhythm of life unfolding, year, after year, in a succession of crops, each having their particular time in a farmer’s calendar.
All of us looked forward to an early summer dish, that in its time, appeared on the table several times a week. It was my mother’s favorite dish, and my grandmother and grandfather both loved it dearly.
Creamed new potatoes with baby peas was a dish of simplicity, containing nothing other than what was stated in its name, save a scant seasoning of salt, pepper, and spring onions.
It always started in the garden, with Grandma’s command that I fill her battered tin colander with pea pods. She always enjoined me to pick “The littlest ones, the babies of the plant–they are the sweetest,” as I trotted off to the cool shade of the trellised pea plants. She always sent me with plenty of time to pick, knowing full well that I would likely eat as many pea pods as I picked, so extra minutes had to be allotted.
She herself dug the potatoes, never quite trusting my clumsiness with the big shovel to not damage the roots of the plants. If she was still digging by the time I filled the colander, I could run along the potato row, picking up and dusting off the jawbreaker-sized tubers before gently depositing them in the bucket that swung from her arm. My efforts kept her from having to bend over quite so much, and that pleased her immensely.
In the kitchen, my job was to carefully rinse off the potatoes, scrubbing the dirt off with my fingers, so as to keep as much of the paper-thin skins intact as possible. Grandma, meanwhile shelled the tiny peas, her fingers expertly flicking the green spheres into a bowl, while casting the pods into the colander to be taken out and gifted to the chickens, the cows or the pigs, depending on whose turn it was to have a sweet treat.
I was always stealing a spent pod or two myself, to chew on. My Grandpa considered my preference for the pods of peas to the seeds a perverse personality quirk, but my oddities were allowed, as they seemed to cause me no harm. Son long as I left plenty for the livestock, he had no complaints.
Grandma cooked the dish simply, by slicing up spring onions, which are nothing more than baby globe onions, about the size of shooter marbles, and cooking them slowly in butter. Meanwhile, she boiled the potatoes until they were just tender, yielding easily to the touch of a fork. The peas went into the potato boiling water just before the potatoes were done, then the whole lot was drained.
The buttery onions had flour added, to make a loose roux, then evaporated milk was poured over the hot roux. Grandma would whisk the mixture vigorously with a fork, until the milk formed a medium-thick cream sauce, which she seasoned to taste with salt and pepper. Into the saucepan went the potatoes and peas and after a good stir, the lid was clapped over it and the fire was extinguished. When the rest of our meal was ready, the warm peas and potatoes were spooned into a dish, and set at the table with much fanfare.
I swear I would eat those in preference to everything else on the table, as would most of the rest of us. It never really mattered what else graced the table, really, because that simple dish outshone them all. We would eat and eat until we were nearly full to bursting on the creamy, earthy new potatoes and sugary sweet baby peas, appreciating the sprinkling of spring onion tops Grandma would shake over the bowl just before setting it on the table.
This weekend at the farmer’s market, I found tiny red new potatoes, and crisp sugar snap peas, along with spring onions, and best of all, the first garlic of the season!
Of course, I put into our string bag some of everything, and vowed to give Morganna a taste of my own childhood, though in truth, I made my own dish a bit differently from the way Grandma did.
For one thing, I added the fresh garlic, because it was too fragrant, sweet and tender not to.
(As you can see, Kat agrees on this point. It is something about my girls and I–we all are drawn to garlic and onions from an early age. My mother still talks about me teething by gumming scallions all day long, and Morganna once insisted upon buying her own head of garlic at a Middle Eastern market in Charleston, after carrying it all around the store, cradled to her bosom, and occasionally sticking it practically up her nose to sniff it loudly. She proclaimed to the proprietor of the store as he rang up our purchases, “Mordanna love darlic. Darlic so dood.”)
In addition, I used sugar snap peas, cut into cylinders rather than shelled garden peas. Why? I prefer the crisp texture and crunch of snap peas, and the fact is, they survive being picked better than little garden peas. I had no idea when the garden peas I saw at the market had been picked, so I had no way of knowing how sweet they would be, but the sugar snaps were all plump, small, well-hydrated and promised sweetness by their looks and delicate aroma.
Besides, I like them better anyway.
I also dressed it up with a splash of sherry, and a sprinkling of fresh mint at the end. The sherry added a nutty flavor and the mint gave a fresh grace note that emphasized the sweetness of the onions and peas without adding another level of sugar. It also cut through the richness of the cream sauce, which I made by reduction rather than by thickening it with a roux.
Morganna loved it, and requested that I make it again often, while the season is upon us.
How can I refuse her?
Creamed Sugar Snap Peas and New Potatoes
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon butter
1/2 cup thinly sliced spring onions or scallions, white parts only
1 heaping tablespoon minced fresh garlic
1/4 cup dry sherry
1/2 cup chicken stock or vegetable broth
3/4 pound new potatoes (red or white skinned), scrubbed well and boiled in salted water until just tender, drained
1/2 pound sugar snap peas, strings removed and cut into 1/2″ wide cylinders
1/3 cup cream
salt and pepper to taste
1/4 cup minced fresh mint
1/4 cup thinly sliced spring onion or scallion tops
In a heavy bottomed skillet, heat the olive oil and melt the butter on medium heat. When the butter foams, add the spring onion slices, and cook, stirring, until they turn golden.
Add the garlic and continue cooking until the onions turn light tan, then deglaze the pan with the sherry, stirring while the alcohol boils off. Add the stock or broth, bring to a boil, stir in the potatoes and the peas, and the cream.
Stir well, and cook until the peas turn bright green, and the sauce reduces until it coats the potatoes nicely. Add salt and pepper to taste, then stir in mint and scallion tops.
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