The last thing I ever intended for this blog was to talk about food or cooking. To be fair, I began blogging with aesthetic gardening, flower gardening, with nothing of the vegetable kind, in mind. Since then, I began reading what others were saying around their gardens, and of that became an awareness of the accord between the garden and the kitchen. It may be hard to believe, but I never gave that much thought, and most often saw the produce of any vegetable garden I have tended as a source of fresh vegetables to eat uncooked, there in the patch.
But all this has changed, hasn't it? I am now a dedicated foodie, a forager, a farmer, my kitchen a forum for fresh and fancy foods? No, not really. Although I have a few tricks up my sleeve, my meal palette is actually quite limited, and my time for cooking quite the same. But the media does like talk of food way more than gardening, enough so that garden talk has become the preamble to food discussion. And I suppose that makes sense, especially as we talk of vegetable, ahem -food, gardening.
This Thursday I'll head down to the WNYC studios to record 20 minutes of talk with Amy Eddings about gardening peas, and more specifically pea shoots, and maybe some chat about city vegetable gardening, garden blogging, and community gardening. I hope to figure out a way to drop the word artist and frankmeuschke.com in there somewhere, maybe as a .exe, one that surreptitiously opens only after the 20 minutes has been edited down to the broadcast five. In preparation, I'm constructing statements on the confluence of painting and gardening.
As it so happens, I have had WNYC over for dinner once before, several years ago. My family's turkey stuffing was on the table, and Leonard Lopate and Ruth Reichl were guests. Ruth, editor of the now defunct Gourmet magazine, mentioned that the recipe had reminded her of polpettone. If you were listening, you may have heard the crickets, because I had no idea what that was and had little interest in admitting to my ignorance (until now, apparently). So, like everyone else, I looked it up online afterward, to find it's essentially meatloaf, Italian style, albeit more interesting than your average American loaf of ketchup, onions, and ground beef.
This time my guests would like to have pea shoots for dinner and I've harvested just enough to experiment with a pasta recipe before my appearance on Thursday. Of course, my instinct is to relate how delicious it is to eat them raw, snipped right off the plant, washing optional. After that, wouldn't one want to have it in a salad with the slightly bitter and snappy fresh greens also harvested now, a dash of olive oil and lemon, salt, and pepper? Those really are the first things to talk about and two things I've already eaten this spring. A way to eat cooked pea shoots is in a simple stir fry, which I made the first time I ate pea shoots several years ago, after I bought a rubber-banded bunch for one dollar from Hmong farmers at the Minneapolis Farmers' Market.
Pea shoots are sweet, a little nutty, distinctively pea, but without it's starchiness. They go well with earthy, woodsy ingredients, so I went to the farmers' market on Cortelyou to pick up cultivated mushrooms more exciting than the usual baby browns I can get around the corner -but those would work, too, in a pinch of any kind. The yellow and gray oysters were 7.99 a half pound and the hen of the woods was the same. My brown paper bagful cost me ten even. Dry, fresh mushrooms are fairly light-weighted and you'll get your money's worth in flavor.
I went to Caputos on Court to pick up some guanciale, fresh ricotta cheese, parmigiano, pecorino toscano, fresh pasta (out of pappardelle, out of fettuccine, had to settle for linguine), and ravioli. I bought the "wrong" ravioli, and left that out of the evening's exploration, saved for Wednesday when I will cook them with farmers' market asparagus and the remaining mushrooms. The guanciale is a cured, but not smoked pig jowl, a delicately textured "bacon," that reminds Betsy of flavors somewhere between turkey skin and pancetta.
Wild garlic, Allium vineale, has a very earthy flavor, with subtle hints of garlic and shallot. I foraged these from the fields at the beach farm on Saturday, clipped the roots and stems, peeled the first layer of skin, washing thoroughly, and chopped. You can find wild garlic in most any woods or unmowed field right now in the metro area.
I have been growing peas in house as well as at the farm. Those on the right are cut from mature, beach farm plants, earning them the right to be called shoots, as opposed to the sprouts seen on the left. There may be some confusion about which should be called shoots on the web, but there is no doubt in my mind about which is which. Recently sprouted peas should be called sprouts, while mature vegetation cut for eating can be called shoots, but should be called pea greens to save from any confusion. Don't confuse pea sprouts with mung bean sprouts, which are an entirely different food.
The field grown pea shoots are robust, leafy, and with flowers -a mouthful of fresh pea flavor.
The in house sprouts are similarly flavored, although I expected them to be less so, and slightly more tender, but without flowers, and an altogether different eating experience because of their diminutive size.
I sliced the guanciale, pronounced gwan-chee-ah-lay, and crisped it to a light golden brown over low heat. I poured the rendered cheek fat into a bowl for later use -it's liquid flavor gold. After placing the the guanciale on the side, I placed a couple of pats of unsalted butter in the pan and softened the wild garlic. Then I cut up some of the mushrooms, which were very clean and required no washing (nice! no water), and tossed them in. Meanwhile the salted water was boiling and ready to receive the fresh pasta.
I added a splash or two of cream, two spoonfuls of ricotta, two spoonfuls of the liquid guanciale fat, two spoonfuls of pasta water, some salt, some pepper, a dash of nutmeg. After draining the liquid from the pasta, I chopped the pea shoots into one or two inch pieces, and tossed them into the saute pan. The key to cooking with pea shoots is to not wilt them -just warm them up. Throw them in at the last minute and the heat of the food will do that. I stirred the whole mixture, quite sloppily, together and grated some parmigiano on top.
All in all, I think it came out pretty well, although I have some after eating thoughts. The first thing is more shoots -I wanted more shoots in the dish, yet I cut pretty conservatively at the farm because I am hoping for a few snap peas. The second is the ricotta, which I added haphazardly, and I think the dish could do without, or maybe just one spoonful. And lastly, the mushrooms: When I sampled the oyster mushrooms, I thought they were quite strong and opted for a greater hen to oyster ratio, but after cooked, the oysters lent a woodsy flavor and the hens seemed overwhelmed. Its possible that the dairy overwhelmed all of them and would consider making this with olive oil and butter, omitting the cream altogether.
One final thought about eating pea greens (shoots). Eating the tendrils raw, they are tender and easy to eat. However, I find that when you cook them, they toughen up just a bit. With this in mind, my recommendation is to cut the tendrils to one inch or less in length when cooking them, while leaving the leaves, flowers, and branches larger. Or you can simply remove the tendrils altogether, snacking on those while you cook.