Everyone has a problem with some vegetable. Lately, my concern has been the impending arrival of garden peas.
Even when they’re bought during spring at the greenmarket—pods bulging, peas demanding to be shelled the moment you get home—you’re left to chance. Maybe what lies within will be sweet. Then again, maybe it’ll be starchy. You just never know.
Whereas with pea shoots, there’s no guesswork. An unequivocal, uncannily, resoundingly sweet-pea taste awaits each time, the frilly little leaves, clingy stems and tendrils unfailingly capturing the essence of the sweet garden pea. It’s not terribly difficult to discern where I lavish my attention this time of year.
It is, however, rather tricky to articulate the flavor in a single word. Cooking with Amy recently offered up a rather apt solution, suggesting that pea shoots taste, quite simply, of spring. Just like spring. Found at the greenmarket for at least the next several weeks or so, pea shoots comprise all of the divinely sweet parts of the plant, minus the pod—floppy leaves, clingy curlicue tendrils, and slender, sturdy stems that connect them all in a maddeningly tangled mess. And, on occasion, a delicate white blossom. All eminently edible.
True pea shoots are ephemeral, emerging only during spring. However, there is a potentially confusing subclass of pea shoots. These wee greens are plucked much earlier, with barely any tiny leaves at the end of their elongated stems. They look and taste more delicate than shoots, and are no less enticing, but in fact, they’re actually sprouts (although labeling them as such would require dancing around all kinds of USDA mandates). They’re grown in greenhouses and are found year-round, packaged in little plastic containers at supermarkets and, thankfully, from local growers, including Windfall Farms, purveyors of truly “unconventionally grown” specialty produce at Union Square Greenmarket. At Windfall, they’re labeled “pea greens” and described as “newly sprouted microgreens.” The signs also playfully tease, “Traumatized by frozen or canned peas as a child?” (I could add starchy shelled peas to the list.)
Pea shoots (and, to an extent, pea greens) aren’t just vibrant Prada accessories to the pea pod. They’re the actual precursors to them. Which is to say, harvesting the divinely sweet leaves and their maddeningly tenacious tendrils now means a scarcity of peas in the pod later. It’s an annual, sacrificial sweet-pea slaughter that pacifies those of us who swoon for the shoots. No qualms here.
Those pulled from the garden early in the season are tender and require no cooking. The larger and slightly tougher tendrils that emerge later in the season could use the taming afforded by a quick toss in a wok or a blazing-hot skillet. Either way, the shoots contain all of the vital essence of the pea in its would-be state, making them more than just modestly nutritious.
Given that the frilly little things and their nutrients wilt within a day or two, as soon as you get back from the greenmarket, tuck the shoots between paper or clean towels that are ever-so-slightly dampened, then nudge them inside a plastic bag left partially open. All that’s left is to put them to good use. A simple tangle atop just about anything, including the chicken salad above, will more than suffice, especially when anointed with a few drops of extra-virgin olive oil and a little coarse sea salt. Why mess with perfection?
Share your preferred way with pea shoots in the comments section below.
Chicken-Pea Shoot Salad
Pea shoots need no cooking. They’re commonly sold by Chinese grocers as dau mui and are used in salads and stir-fries. You’ll need to perk them up in ice-cold water just before using. Other leaves can be used instead, such as watercress, baby spinach, or finely sliced uncooked snowpeas. This quick-to-prepare salad recipe is very adaptable, so use whatever leaves you can find.–Alastair Hendy
The unique taste and texture of pea shoots work uncommonly well with the creamy sour cream dressing. You can play loose and easy with the rest of the ingredients for the salad, slipping in other spring vegetables such as blanched sugar snaps, raw carrots, or, for the bold, julienned burdock or salsify.
Chicken-Pea Shoot Salad
- Quick Glance
- 30 M
- 1 H, 30 M
- Serves 6
- For the ginger marinade
- 1-inch piece ginger, finely grated, juice squeezed from the gratings, solids discarded
- 1 garlic clove, crushed
- 3 tablespoons rice vinegar
- Juice of 1 lemon
- 1 1/2 tablespoons sugar
- 1 whole clove, very finely crushed
- 2 fresh kaffir lime leaves, very finely chopped, or up to 1 teaspoon minced lime zest (optional)
- 1/2 teaspoon chile flakes (optional)
- 1 cooked chicken or therabouts, meat shredded
- Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
- For the salad
- 3 tablespoons sour cream
- 3 handfuls pea shoots
- 6 radishes, sliced
- Freshly ground black pepper
- Make the marinade
- 1. In a large bowl combine the ginger juice, garlic, vinegar, lemon juice, sugar, clove, and kaffir lime leaves and chile flakes, if using. Add the chicken and turn to coat well. Refrigerate for at least 1 hour or up to overnight.
- 2. Transfer the chicken from the marinade to a large bowl. Stir the sour cream into the remaining marinade, then add salt and pepper to taste.
- Assemble the salad
- 3. Gently toss the chicken with the pea shoots and radishes, then pile into bowls or onto serving plates. Spoon the sour cream dressing over the top and serve with plenty of pepper, if you like.
- Try the salad using tender herbs, such as parsley, chervil, and cilantro, In place of the pea shoots. Or swap out mixed micro greens or lettuces for the pea shoots but add a handful of fresh herbs to the salad.
- Make double the amount of dressing and pile the greens and chicken atop just-cooked white rice.
- Vary the dressing by swapping out the sour cream for 3 tablespoons silken tofu pureed with 1/2 tablespoon tahini paste.