Out of Season but Inspired

Yet again, I’m late to the party. 

For at least a couple of years, now, I’ve been hearing fleeting mentions of recipes involving pea shoots–not peas themselves, but leaves and tendrils clipped from the vines of a pea plant.  The recipes always sounded interesting, but heaven knows I’d never seen a pea shoot for sale in the grocery store.  It was an ingredient that interested me, but which I ultimately decided that I’d have to taste in a future-indeterminate meal at a fancy restaurant.  In the spring.

Last week I checked out a new cookbook (Molly Katzen’s latest: Vegetable Dishes I Can’t Live Without) and discovered yet another recipe for pea shoots–this time simply sauteed with lots of fresh garlic and a little salt.  I would never have remarked it more than usual, but for one thing: I found pea shoots.

Saturday morning Teacherman and I went to one of the special winter farmer’s markets, intending to buy root vegetables, and maybe some apples.  (The apples may be old and ugly at this time of year, but they’re still miles better than the best store-bought, even at fancy organic stores).  We ended up spending scads more than we expected, on organic lamb and pork (and a Christmas ornament, but that wasn’t my fault), and it seemed like we had barely enough cash left over to cover our vegtabular bounty. 

At the very last stall, Teacherman was some parsnips when I spied a basket of tangled green somethings.  A tiny lightbulb lit up in my brain.

“Are those pea shoots?” I asked the stallholder.

“Nope, those are sunflower shoots,” she said.  “But we have a basket of pea shoots right here!” and she pulled a big basket of nearly identical tangled green things out from under the counter.  (And honestly, who has ever heard of sunflower shoots?)

After a rapid consultation about the state of our wallets, Teacherman and I scraped together enough loose change to cover a quarter of a pound of pea shoots, then whisked them home to eat for lunch.

I followed Katzen’s recipe almost exactly: I threw the pea shoots and a large quantity of chopped garlic into a blazing hot saute pan filmed with oil.  I added a big pinch of salt and then tossed the whole mixture until it was bright green and wilted.  (Katzen’s book suggests 5 minutes for this, but it only took me 2). 

We served the little garlicky tangles with Thai salmon cakes and sweet-and-sour red cabbage with cranberries (another Katzen recipe), but the pea shoots were unquestionably the star of the meal.  It’s hard to explain why this is–we weren’t ravished and moaning, and the flavor couldn’t be described as anything remotely intense, but its very simplicity was compelling.  Every time one of us took a bite there would be a quiet “Wow.”   

In trying to come up with a way to describe the flavor, all I can say is: it’s like spinach, except. 

Except it doesn’t have that awful metallic taste that so many people object to.  Except it isn’t heavy and compacted together.  Except that there’s an elusive extra flavor–like the breath of an almost-forgotten rememberance of peas.  I know that this sounds hyperbolic, but the flavor actually made me happy

I don’t know when I’ll get to eat pea shoots again–they’re usually a spring specialty, and I’ve wondered if my finding them at the farmer’s market was a fluke–but the next time I see them, I’ll definitely buy them. 

Published in: on December 3, 2007 at 8:54 am  Leave a Comment  

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