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Spring in the Spoon

Fresh Pea Soup Helps End the Winter Doldrums

March 28, 2004|DAVID LEITE | David Leite last wrote for the magazine about spaghetti alla carbonara.

Each spring, the unassuming pea takes on heroic proportions. Come late March, chefs and home cooks who are weary of improvising with winter squashes and root vegetables rush the stalls at Southern California farmers markets to stock up on the bright-green legume. Armed with bag loads of fresh peas, these cooks churn out terrines, flans, risottos and soups.

"People eat with their eyes," says Josie Le Balch, chef and owner of Josie restaurant in Santa Monica. "And when they see all that green, it just feels like spring."

Le Balch says that the savvy cook looks for three things when buying fresh peas: appearance, feel and taste. "The color should be bright green," she says. "And the skin should be supple, with round, plump bumps underneath." But it all comes down to taste. And you can't judge that without slitting open a pod and popping a few peas in your mouth. They should be sweet without a hint of bitterness or starchiness.

Timing is crucial when it comes to cooking with fresh peas. The last thing you want to do is shop for peas on Wednesday for dinner on Saturday, Le Balch says. For the best flavor, prepare the peas the same day you buy them, taking care not to overcook them, which turns peas an unappetizingly muddy color.

Chefs have long been divided as to whether spring pea soup, which is thinner than the husky split-pea soups of winter months, should be served hot or cold. Let the thermometer be your guide. "I like to serve fresh pea soup warm for dinner and cold for lunch," Le Balch says. She also offers a novel way of enjoying the soup if hosting a large party: "Fill shot glasses with cold soup and pass them out." These pea shooters make an easy way for guests to enjoy a hit of spring. Plus there are no spoons to clean.

One thing that everyone agrees on is that the pairing of smoked pork and peas is a natural. But instead of the traditional heavy ham hocks found in the split-pea version, try using pancetta, the Italian bacon. Diced and quickly sauteed, the bits of crisp pancetta serve as a garnish on top, while the rendered fat, with its deep, smoky flavor, is used to cook the other vegetables in the soup.

For an even greener experience, add a spiral of freshly made chive oil to spike the dish with a sharp, onion-tasting layer that rounds out the soup's mellow flavor. For body, garnish with a dollop of smooth creme fraiche whipped with an imported white pepper.

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Spring Pea Soup with Chive Oil and Peppered Creme Fraiche

Serves 5

Bunch of chives, torn into thirds

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup canola oil

4 cups freshly shelled fresh peas

4 cups homemade or canned chicken stock

4 slices pancetta

2 tablespoons shallot, chopped

1/2 cup celery, chopped

1/2 teaspoon sugar, if needed

1/2 cup creme fraiche

1/8 teaspoon white pepper

To make chive oil, place chives and 1/4 teaspoon salt in bowl of food processor and pulse until minced. Add oil in a steady stream through feed tube and process until blended. Pour into small bowl and set aside.

To make soup, bring the peas and stock to a boil in a medium saucepan. Cook until very tender, about 7 to 10 minutes. Meanwhile, saute bacon until crisp. Drain on paper towels. Crumble when cool, then set aside. Add shallot and celery to bacon fat and cook over medium-low heat until translucent, about 4 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, remove from the pan and set aside.

Using a slotted spoon, scoop peas into blender along with the shallot and celery and puree. With the motor running, slowly pour in 2 cups of the chicken stock through the opening in the cap and blend until smooth. Work in two batches, if necessary. Pour soup back into saucepan and heat over low flame until hot. Season to taste with salt; if the peas are large and starchy, add sugar.

In a separate bowl, whisk together creme fraiche and white pepper. To serve, ladle soup into 4 bowls. Using a spoon, drizzle a spiral of chive oil on top. Crown with a dollop of peppered creme fraiche and sprinkle with crisped pancetta bits.

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