Sunday, March 11, 2012

Fresh Off the Vine

I used to plant snow peas in the winter garden until one year I decided to try the sugar snap peas everyone was talking about. Now each year I'm faced with the dilemma of which kind will get garden space. Because we don't have unlimited acreage (or any acreage at all), I like tall vines that make use of the wonderful trellises Joe built a few years ago.
     You can see how the trellises are attached to the concrete wall at the top with brackets. Joe's a wonderful, careful craftsman (I'm so lucky!); the trellises are extremely sturdy, more than 6 feet tall (but not so tall I can't reach what grows on them), with vertical posts every two feet and chicken wire between the posts for the vines to climb on.
     It's much easier to pick peas (or anything else) when they grow this way than with bush varieties, and I think (though I have no statistical evidence to confirm it) that the tall vines yield more per square foot, and all varieties of peas freeze well, so abundance is welcome.
     Oddly enough (at least it seems odd to me), the seed catalogues were full of the bush varieties of both snow peas and sugar snap peas, but the Oregon Sugar Snaps were the only tall ones I could find in the catalogue I'd decided to order from; ergo, the decision was taken out of my hands. I thought they were a bit slow getting started, but now they've hit their stride, they're very productive and delicious. Few things are tastier than a crunchy, sweet sugar snap pea just plucked from the vine.
     Perhaps I've said this before, but if so, I'll say it again. Picking peas of any variety is not a task to be rushed, because if you rush, you'll miss many of the pods and all of the pleasure. It's important to slow down, relax your gaze, get into a sort of meditative, Zen state in which the peas can reveal themselves to you. There may be some sort of general metaphor for life there.
Peas are not like tomatoes, for example, contrasting with the foliage and shouting "Pick me! Pick me!" No, pea pods are the same color as the leaves and vines, and depending on the angle at which they're hanging, it's easy to mistake one for the other. So I move slowly down the row, scanning from top to bottom, bottom to top, and when I've reached the end of the row, I turn around and do the same thing going back the other way, because invariably I find more on the return trip, pods I couldn't see because they were hidden among the leaves, or because the light comes at them differently from the other direction. Joe built the trellises just far enough from the wall that I can get behind them, but I guide the vines to grow on the other side, so there usually aren't too many back there.
     Another nice thing about sugar snap peas as opposed to snow peas is that if you miss a day or two of picking, they'll still be edible - you can't let snow peas get too large or the actual peas get too big - they get tough and the pods get stringy. Here's my crop from yesterday:
Together with what was in the refrigerator from an earlier picking, I was able to freeze enough for three dinners some time in the future, in the searing heat of summer, perhaps, when these cool and beautiful spring days will seem like a long-ago dream, and still have enough for dinner last night.  Here's what we had , a simple stir-fry of sugar snap peas, crimini mushrooms, red bell pepper, onion, pak choi (some of the last from the garden, since it's beginning to bolt), and tofu.
     Some years ago on Prairie Home Companion, Garrison Keillor told the story of how Mrs. Ingqvist took cooking classes and learned a whole lot of ways to cook tofu, but when she told her husband that eating tofu could add ten years to his life, he said he didn't think those would be years he'd enjoy. Joe and I actually like tofu, but I think my mom agrees with Pastor Ingqvist, and since she's doing very well at almost 89 years old, I really can't use the longevity argument on her. I just don't cook tofu when she's coming to dinner.
     No doubt I'll write more about tofu some time in the future. This stir-fry would be equally good with shrimp or chicken, beef or pork, though those protein sources might dominate and in this case I wanted the focus to be on the vegetables.
     I don't really use a recipe for such a basic stir-fry, since my ingredients are usually whatever's on hand in the refrigerator, but here's the basic procedure:
 First, do any slicing or chopping or measuring before you turn on the stove, including cooking the rice. I heat up the pan-sprayed wok with a couple of teaspoons of oil in it (if you use a nonstick wok, as I do, be sure never to heat it without some kind of fat - even if it's just pan spray - or liquid in it, since heating them dry can release toxic chemicals) and toss in your protein (in this case, for two people, just under 1/2 pound of pressed, cubed tofu) and stir-fry till it browns a little (if you're using shrimp, cook them till they're not quite done, take them out, then add them in at the end again to finish cooking - overcooked, rubbery shrimp is not pleasant), then add seasonings - I use a combination of soy sauce, rice wine vinegar or sherry, a spoonful of sugar, grated fresh ginger, and minced garlic. Then put in the vegetables in batches, the longer cooking ones first, and the tender greens, if you're using them, at the end (the delicate pak choi last night needed only 1 minute or so to wilt deliciously). I usually add some (half a cup or so) liquid and put on the tight-fitting lid after adding the veggies so there's an element of steaming as well as frying. Then serve it all over rice.
 One final note about mushrooms:
never store them in the plastic produce bag in which you bring them home from the store. I put mine in the refrigerator in a little basket lined with a paper towel, so they can breathe and not get slimy if I forget and don't use them right away.  My mom does the same thing but uses a bowl with a paper towel. Don't cover them unless it's with more paper towel. (Actually, a cloth napkin would work as well as the paper towel and be more eco-conscious, and I'm sure I have a stained one that I can put to that use.) They may dry up and shrink a little, but they're usually still good if you're going to put them in a dish where they cook in some liquid that will reconstitute them. That was the case with the criminis I used last night; they'd shrunk to about 3/5 their original size and gotten a bit leathery, but they drank up the seasoned liquid and steam and were a flavorful addition to our dinner.

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