What Could Be Sweeter Than The First Peas?
Crisp, crunchy and delectably sweet, snowpeas rarely make it into real recipes at my house since they tend to get eaten right off the vine. However, I have a few special recipes that set off the best qualities of early peas and they have become family spring classics. As a student in Italy, many, many years ago, I fell in love with a spring dish called Risi Bisi. Basically, it involves hot, fluffy rice with a spunky sauce of clotted cream, garlic greens, mint, lots of pepper, and tender young peas, barely cooked.
I was fascinated to discover that Italian pasta stores carry several hundred kinds of pasta, fresh and dried. It amazed me, since all I knew about was spaghetti and macaroni. My friends and I spent many a happy hour trying different kinds, matching each pasta with the type of sauce Italian cooks would use. Pasta shops usually carry rice as well, perhaps two or three dozen kinds. These days, many American grocery stores offer lots of kinds of rice, but back in the early 1970’s, I had no idea so many kinds existed. The Italians even had special types of rice for feeding to dogs (commercial dogfood was uncommon in Italy back then). For Risi Bisi, I usually use jasmine rice, though I also make it with decidedly non-traditional short grain brown rice.
Choosing The Right Cream
Clotted cream is not always easy to come by, but plain, organic sour cream works very nicely. If you do prefer to use yogurt, pick a mild Greek style yogurt; otherwise the tartness will dominate the delicate flavor of the young peas. If you want to try to make your own clotted cream, use organic cream, preferably unpasteurized. Pasteurized heavy cream will work but won’t give you quite the same texture and won’t taste quite as fresh (since it is cooked).
2 cups organic heavy cream
Pour cream into a double boiler over a heavy bottomed pan with a few inches of boiling water. Reduce heat and simmer uncovered for 4-6 hours until cream is reduced to about half the original volume. Remove top of double boiler, cover pan and let cool for several hours. The top will be very thick. Refrigerate overnight (at least 12 hours). To serve, stir the thicker layer into the thinner cream beneath it. Serve chilled. Transfer any extra cream to a clean glass jar with a tightly sealed lid and refrigerate for up to 3 days. Makes about 1 cup.
If you grow garlic, you can harvest some of the sturdy foliage, which look like green straws. The flowering tips are prized by cooks for garnish, and whole stems, flowerhead and all, also get chopped into stir fries and sauteed dishes. If you don’t grow garlic, you can use garlic chives, or even regular chives, though they are not quite as pungent.
Don’t harvest too many greens off any single garlic plant, since plants need their foliage to support the fattening bulbs. Garlic chives or regular chives can be snipped with scissors, and there’s no worry about harming the plant (at least, I’ve never managed to kill chives yet).
Springtime Risi Bisi
This light and savory dish assembles very quickly. Start the rice, then toss together a salad of mixed greens, mixing up a mild, springy dressing of olive oil, rice vinegar, a bit of flaked brewer’s yeast and a few shreds of fresh garlic chives. Minted herb tea or a light grignolino will complement this dish very pleasantly.
1-1/2 cup dry rice (Thai jasmine rice or any long grain white rice)
1 tablespoon fruity olive oil
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1/4 cup fresh garlic greens or garlic chives, minced
2 cups shelled new peas OR snow peas (about 1 pound)
1 tablespoon fresh spearmint, stemmed and minced
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
1 cup clotted cream or Greek style yogurt or sour cream
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
4 garlic or chive blossoms
Cook rice according to directions on packet. In a wide, shallow pan, combine oil and butter over medium high heat and add garlic greens or chives. Cook for 1 minute, then add peas. Stir to coat and cook, uncovered until they lose their raw flavor but remain plump and bright green. Add minced mint and salt and cook, stirring, for 1 minute. Stir in cream and pepper and heat through over low heat. Fluff rice and put in a serving dish, top peas and sauce, and garnish with garlic blossoms. Serve immediately. Serves four.