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An Early Spring : Confessions of a Pod Person

March 03, 1994|MICHELLE HUNEVEN

As a child, the only way I could eat peas was to pretend they were pills and swallow them whole, washed down with milk. Imaginary pneumonia, flu and intolerable insomnia were cured at the dinner table.

"I'm taking a sleeping pill," I'd announce, then down the pea and produce great, grunty whistling snores until my mother said, "That's just about enough, thank you."

Now I grow my own peas.

Last October, I bedded dried, shriveled pea seeds in damp rags and left them on my water heater. When they sent out inquisitive white roots, I planted them, one per inch, in my garden. I planted Sugar Snap edible pod peas and shelling peas with a transvestite's name: Wando.

Wando peas, I read on the packet, needed support. When the vines got a little length on them, I stuck part of an old expandable wooden gate in the ground. The plants tried the gate--they twirled these heartbreakingly tiny tendrils around the wood--and let go, as if they'd decided instead to sprawl across the ground, flirt with the dark forces of rot and mildew. I kept introducing them to the gate without result. Peas, like teen-agers, often don't know what's best for them. Eventually, I tied them up. For their own good.

After some weeks, there was an outbreak of white flowers that looked like profiles of women in bonnets. These blossoms dried up and fell away to reveal inch-long green crescents. When the sun hit these crescents, tiny embryonic peas could be seen, rows of apostrophes. Next, the pods grew thick and the peas stayed tiny. Then the peas fattened up, filled out.

I opened pods of stunning symmetry--perfect green spheres with the tiniest hitch holding them to the pod. There's nothing dearer than peas in the pod, nothing in the vegetable kingdom at any rate. And they're so sweet, they taste already cooked.

I stumbled around my garden, popping peas. Reeling.

Around the time my Wandos were coming into their perfect selves I was reading "Simple Food" by John Thorne. In his preface, Thorne writes about how recipes are only re-creations; the process of coming up with a recipe, with all its decisions and confusions, is not apparent to the cook who follows a recipe. However, as soon as cooks start comparing cookbooks with each other, they get a sense of how many decisions are inherent in the simplest recipe. To illustrate this point, Thorne introduces his readers to a particularly controversial and versatile dish: risi e bisi , rice and peas.

The controversy surrounding risi e bisi is based on what, exactly, risi e bisi is: soup or risotto. Thorne lines up the sides: Marcella Hazan and Ada Boni say risi e bisi is soup. Elizabeth David and Jane Grigson vote for risotto. A browse through the Italian cookbooks in any collection, even my own limited home collection, expands upon this controversy. Lorenza di Medici votes for soup, Gioletta Vitale puts rice and peas together in something closer to a pilaf.

Thorne, after sorting through a slew of risi e bisi permutations, presents his own recipe for a soup and a risotto. Both recipes contain the same ingredients and differ only in proportions.

Clearly, it's difficult to go wrong with the dish, given the ingredients: rice and peas in combination are inarguably pleasurable. Soup or risotto, risi e bisi can bear the imprint of any good cook and still be delicious--proof that there is no single path to the marvelous.

Thorne himself says, "Even if you have never heard of this dish before, you probably have some idea as to how you would go about making it."

Indeed.

I had enough of an idea that, when a friend called and confessed that, having eaten it many times in Italy and New York, he was something of a risi e bisi expert, I invited him over for dinner. Risi e Wandi.

My first decision was: risotto. I was in the risotto camp. Sorry, Marcella.

My version, I already knew, would differ from Thorne's recipe in certain small ways. For example, I liked the idea, mentioned and rejected by Thorne, of using the shucked pea shells in the broth. Finally, in a constant effort to find more vegetarian dishes for an increasingly large circle of vegetarian friends, I resolved to create a vegetarian risi e bisi and bought a bag full of broth vegetables at the supermarket.

But then, my deli man offered me a nice thick slab off the end of a prosciutto for the price of pancetta.

In his preface, Thorne writes of "ferment, the confusion, the groping before the moment that shaped the dish." That was me as I stood, oscillating at the counter, resolve weakening, face-to-face with a bargain piece of Parma ham. I bought some, just in case I changed my mind.

Home again, I picked a basket of peas, shucked them in the late afternoon sun on my front porch and considered more decisions.

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