Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Notes From the Prep List

"The earth was soft and crumbling, with a scattering of the weeds that are found in cultivated fields -- fumitory, charlock, pimpernel and mayweed, all growing in the green gloom under the bean leaves. As the plants moved in the breeze, the sunlight dappled and speckled back and forth over the brown soil, the white pebbles and weeds. Yet in this ubiquitous restlessness there was nothing alarming, for the whole forest took part in it and the only sound was the soft, steady movement of the leaves." - Richard Adams, Watership Down

Peas came into season not too long ago, which means that Seattle's chefs are throwing handfuls of the legumes into just about everything, and prep cooks all over town have funny little green stains on their thumbnails. Fava beans were just moments behind peas -- a duo as frankly tiresome as two heiresses on a four-day martini bender. A restaurant as busy as ours goes through about four cases of fava beans a week. The trash overflows with green husks and feet tire from just standing in one place, shelling and shelling and shelling. But they are delicious, and the time spend shelling, blanching and hulling is great for strolling down the somewhat mossy and overgrown flagstone paths of memory.

My thoughts turn toward childhood, favorite destination for a wandering mind, and the Kugels' garden. Their patch was a regular smorgasbord for a pair of browsing children: strawberries, snap peas, corn pulled from the stalk and eaten raw. In the vines that climbed through the stand of corn, I'd catch an occasional glimpse of a sleek green zucchini surrounded by crumpled apricot-colored blossoms and know that the dread -- and wonder -- of vegetable breads was right around the corner, as almost every household on that particular shelf of Sugarloaf Mountain harvested enough of the squash to keep the elementary schools open through bake counters were practically lousy with them.... The zucchini path beckons, so I shake myself back into the present and put on a pot of water to boil, salt it heavily (though not as heavily as I'm supposed to), and prepare an ice bath to shock the peas after their quick dunk in boiling water.

Guy recently planted peas on the back porch of his house, out where he parks the car, so he'd have a snack when arriving and departing. I've decided to try this idea as well, except I went for a blueberry bush instead of planting peas. Now I have to fight through a small flock of rapacious birds to reach my front door. Peas may have been the better choice.

Forced to choose between peas and fava beans, I will always choose peas. They are yummier, less steppy, and peas lack the power to evoke Anthony Hopkins’ portrayal of one of fiction’s scariest monsters. And then there’s favism, which sounds like the punchline to a joke about nepotism, but is actually one of those ancient enzyme deficiencies that may have at one point suppressed malarial parasites in red blood cells, but now just leads to serious anemia. Peas just seem cheerier.

A monkey could be trained to shell peas, though it would eat most of them. One doesn’t really want a monkey in the kitchen. Maybe a small child, though I don’t really want one of those in the kitchen, either. But there’s some kind of historical precedent there – back porch, long afternoons, dogs lolling in the shade of the arbor, many hands, both old and young, making light work. I think if we put an ad on Craigslist we could probably drum up some kind of multigenerational team of shellers. And then I look around the kitchen, at the very young pantry girl, the line cooks all in various stages of the late, late adolescence that we like to call “their Twenties”, the slightly wizened dishwashers who shell peas and hull fava beans between running loads of plates and silverware, and I realize that we already have a pretty good multigenerational/multinational shelling team. We could probably take this on the road. Sell tickets, even.

If I had my McGee with me here at work, and a better command of Spanish, I could tell the guys about the nitrogen fixing properties of legumes, that they are actually a fruit, not a vegetable, they are weirdly healthy for humans... I could tell them stories about legumes’ ancient cultivation – 9,000 years! Imagine that! I could even speculate about the co-evolution of legumes and humans. (And despite the work done by Gregor Mendel, we still haven’t managed to breed a pea that will open upon command.) I could tell them that four prominent Roman families (Fabius, Lentulus, Piso and Cicero) took their names from legumes (Fava beans, lentils, peas and chick peas, respectively). And perhaps most fun of all, I could tell my co-shuckers and shellers that beans and peas comprise the third largest family in the flowering plant world (after orchids and daisies) and, after cereals, they are the second most important to the human diet. That would lead to a treatise on the soybean, however, another path beckoning, another story left for later. Instead I mention that los dining room neccesitas mas chucharos.

Two quarts finished.

Left alone in the walk-in, the peas will rev up their little motors and start turning their sweetness into starchiness. After a day or two, tiny nubs appear, and the pea takes on the form of a sprouting seed, which is harder to throw into boiling water. Seems a bit sad to toss a tiny vessel of optimism into the pot. Invariably, at this point my thoughts turn toward the Siege of Leningrad, the food bank, and the scientists inside who starved to death surrounded by seeds and peas, while the city starved outside. This line of thinking leads to a furrowed brow, however, and one of the cooks stops next to me on his way back to the line from the walk-in and asks for a smile. I can do that.

The mind wanders. Risi pisi. Petite pois. Mushy peas. Split pea soup. Bags of frozen peas hardening into a solid block in the freezer, satisfyingly shatterable when a handful of green ice balls are thrown into a creamy bowl of macaroni and cheese. Gotta get your vegetables.

And look! The case of peas is shelled! We have but a meager three quarts for our labor, but I have the satisfaction of drawing a line through the item on the prep list.

The next item is “Roll Gnocchi.” Another path beckons….

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