Peas, by Mateusz Tokarski, 1795.
Recipe below: Snap Peas with Pepato, Lemon Zest, and Mint
I’ve always had a hard time fitting snap peas into my life. They aren’t as delicate as shell peas or as bittersweet as fava beans. They’re pea and pod in one, ideally to be eaten when young and tender. My father used to grow them in his cramped backyard garden. I thought they tasted like lawn clippings sprinkled with Splenda. I decided some time ago to add them to my list of overrated green things, which already included snow peas and fiddleheads. But since I’ve started treating snap peas with stronger seasonings, I’ve come around. My former method was butter, maybe a gentle herb, and that’s about it. I’d been told so often to let seasonal produce speak for itself that the message sank in too well. Sometimes reverence for local produce can be oppressive. These lumpy little pods can certainly take a little sharp and salt and strong pepper.
For this recipe I chose to add spearmint, a classic with shell peas, pecorino pepato, traditional with raw favas, and lemon zest, just because. You could go with basil and Parmigiano instead, for a gentler flavor. As far as cooking goes, for me snap peas are best when briefly sautéed over fairly high heat, with no liquid added, which should take 2 to 3 minutes tops.
Pepato is a semi-hard pecorino from Sicily that’s studded with whole black peppercorns (there’s also a younger, less assertive version, but for this dish you’ll want the aged kind). When the cheese is shaved or grated, the peppercorns break up, falling into the dish and giving you strong bites of pepper here and there. I love those unpredictable hits of flavor. The cheese itself is sharp, but with touches of sweetness that blend in well with the strident greenness of snap peas. I’ve seen a lot of domestic pepato in my New York supermarkets. Do yourself a favor and avoid it. It’s acrid, with no depth of flavor whatever. Look for the good stuff, pepato pecorino Siciliana DOP.
(Serves 3 to 4)
Extra-virgin olive oil
1 large shallot, minced
¾ pound young snap peas, the strings removed
A handful of pea shoots, if available (use only tender shoots)
The grated zest from 1 large lemon
About a dozen or so spearmint leaves, lightly chopped
A small chunk of Sicilian pepato cheese
Choose a large skillet that will hold the peas without crowding. Drizzle a tablespoon or so of oil into the skillet, and get it hot over medium-high heat. Add the shallot and the snap peas, and sauté, shaking the peas around, until they just start to soften, about 2 minutes. Add the pea shoots, if you’re using them, and the lemon zest, and sauté a minute longer. Season with salt. The peas should be shiny with oil and bright green, possibly with flecks of brown from the heat, and crisp tender to the bite. If you achieve that, you’re getting the best flavor out of the things.
Tilt the peas onto a large serving platter. Drizzle with a thread of fresh olive oil, and scatter on the mint, tossing to incorporate it into the peas. Scrape about 10 shavings of pepato over the top. Serve hot.