Thursday, July 14, 2011

Lettuce and Peas, an Early Summer Delight

A bouquet of fresh lettuce - lucky me!
Where I grew up, peas and lettuce were a springtime delicacy, enjoyed during the months of May and June. People typically started peas on St. Patrick's Day, and enjoyed peas in their pasta primavera during the season of primavera (spring in Italian). Not so in the land of New England - peas and full heads of lettuce are harvested firmly in the territory of summer, especially when the spring is a little on the wet and cold side. So, it's after the Fourth of July and the daytime temps and humidity feel like summer. But with peas and lettuce overtaking the garden, it still seems a bit like spring!

This week, the lettuce has succumbed to the heat and the peas are starting to go... but I've still got both peas and lettuce in the fridge, sustaining spring for a few more days.

A jungle of pea vines - see if you can spot the pea pods.

Peas can handle cool weather but not hot. The seeds go into the ground as soon as it can be worked in the spring, grow like crazy during warm spring days, and as soon as the temperatures start reaching 80 on a consistent basis, the leaves start to look a little peaked, and then a little yellow, and then it's time for the pea vines to go to the compost heap. Make way for the heat-loving peppers, tomatoes and eggplants.

Lettuce is similar - cool weather keeps it leafy and low to the ground, while hot weather triggers the plant to bolt, or to start growing upward to set flowers. Bolting also spurs the production of secondary chemicals, which render the leaves bitter and the sap milky. There are some lettuces that have been bred to handle hot weather, but the best season for lettuces is spring to early summer, yielding soft, mellow salad greens. When the lettuce gives up, it's time for plants that can take the heat - cucumbers, zucchini and summer squash.

Here's a simple recipe for snow peas - perfect for days that feel like summer!

Snow Peas with Garlic Scapes and Almonds

Heat olive oil in a pan with a bit of salt and pepper.
(For a little spice, add a pinch of crushed red pepper flakes.)
Add 2 cups of snow peas and 1/2 cup of garlic scapes; saute about 5 minutes.
Let the peas turn bright green, but still have their snap to them.
Then add 1/4 cup sliced almonds; saute for 1 minute.
Pour in a splash or three of a good aged balsamic vinegar; saute about 30 seconds more.
Scrape the pea mixture out onto a plate, and enjoy hot!

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