Many people equate pea soup with the heavy autumnal concoction. T. Susan Chang shares her recipe for a bright and fresh chilled pea soup that anticipates summer.
Fresh peas are spring's synonym for youth and newness. But for years, they were simply too tiny -- and their availability too brief in season -- to matter in most markets. For a long time, I thought of peas primarily as the revolting, olive-brown globules that emerged from cans and were flung without care on school-cafeteria trays.
The first inkling I had that peas could be bought in their pristine, vegetative state was at a farmer's market some 15 years ago, where I saw bunches of pea tendrils for sale. Their twining, trailing strings and brilliant color enchanted me, but they turned out to be, well, a bit mature. I sat for an hour masticating cellulose and picking coarse threads out of my teeth, feeling something less than vernal.
Times changed, the markets grew, and I suddenly realized that an alert shopper in the right place actually could buy fresh peas in the pod, at least for a short season in April.
Immediately, a vision of pea soup popped into my mind. Not your autumnal pea soup, the one with the big ham bone and the root vegetables that you simmer from sunup to sundown and freeze in giant batches to sustain you through the long dark days of winter. Not the one so smoky and opaque it works overtime as a metaphor for maritime fog. No, what I had in mind was a bright, fresh, chilled and vibrant soup, one that happily anticipated the vichyssoises and gazpachos of summer.
It took a few tries. I could imagine the cool and creamy texture of the soup, its lively pastel color and sweet, barely lingering taste. Chasing down these qualities was another matter. But eventually I unlocked the secrets of my soup one by one, and now I can share them with you.
Capturing the brilliant spring green of new peas is a delicate business. Prolonged heat and acid destroy the fragile pigment (hence the olive-brown and mushy peas of reviled memory). So you want to blanch the peas with a pinch of baking soda (to alkalize the water) very briefly, before the colorful proteins begin to denature. Then you drain and shock them in ice water, which fixes the color before your eyes.
Peas are naturally sweet, but I find that sweating some shallots in butter to flavor the broth for the soup underscores that sweetness beautifully. Then, when the broth has cooled to room temperature (which will help preserve the soup's vibrant color), you can whiz it in the blender with the peas.
An ethereal and creamy texture proved easy enough to achieve: At the last moment, whip a dollop of cream and gently fold in the pea puree, for a cool soup that tastes like a spring rain falling from a pea-scented cloud. Snipped spring herbs like chervil or mint -- or edible flowers or a translucent slice of cucumber -- guarantee a feast for the eyes, not just the mouth.
You could break up the process by preparing the puree ahead of time. But the whole business takes no more than half an hour, provided you haven't spent 15 minutes chasing shucked peas across your floor. Running your thumb down the cool green wall of a peapod to detach its tenants is one of life's small pleasures. But if you don't aim carefully into your colander, they'll bounce with abandon, as flighty and evasive as robins hopping on the lawn. Catch them quick! -- or forever hold your peas.