Sourcing your peas is the first real challenge: "Peas are really incredible when they're good and terrible when they're bad," says David Hands, chef de cuisine of Bouchon Bistro in Beverly Hills. Look for small pods, not large—bigger ones might be easier to open, but the peas aren’t nearly as sweet and tasty.
To pick the best, start by smelling the shell. "If they have a sense of sweetness to them, you're on the right track," Hands says. If you're at a farmers' market, ask the seller to try one—if it’s "sweet and beautiful raw," it's your perfect pea.
Can't find one that suits your tastes? For once, frozen is okay. Hands says peas are either very good or very bad—and if your market doesn't have stellar peas, don’t be afraid to buy bagged, which are frozen at the "peak of their flavor profile." He recommends the frozen petit pois from Whole Foods. As for canned? "To the best of your abilities, stay away," Hands says.
Challenge number two: Opening the pea. As Hands tells his chefs: "People spend a vast amount of time growing these peas and looking after them. Now it's up to us to ruin them. It's a laborious job, but we're the last step in that chain so all we have to do is not mess them up and take our time to get the perfect little peas out."
How do you do that? It's easier than it seems—if a bit repetitive. Hands recommends running a nail or small knife down the back spine, where the two halves of the pod connect. The shell will open up nicely and "they’ll pop right out," he says.
Blanching peas perfectly takes a certain amount of skill, so don’t fret if your first attempts aren’t the best. First, make sure you’ve got a large pot—Hands recommends one five times larger than your peas. Get a large bowl of ice water ready and close by, using at least 50 percent ice.
Add salt. Add a lot of salt. "Don't be afraid to season it highly so it tastes like the ocean," says Hands—he uses 20 grams of salt per liter of water.
Bring the pot to a high boil and put in your peas, keeping a close watch on their progress. "Watch it and care for it and you'll be left with such a better product," Hands says. “Don’t walk away, or get on the phone, or read a book. If you spend all your money on an amazing product at the farmers’ market and don’t take the time to cook it, there’s no point.”
Taste will tell you when they’re done. “Everything’s guesswork unless you actually taste,” Hands says. Cooking the peas should only take two or three minutes—maybe five if you’re starting from frozen. Taste a few peas from the pot. When they have that “nice soft creaminess inside, that nice pop,” they’re ready, says Hands. Immediately drop them into your ice water and wait until completely cooled.
At Bouchon, they transform their blanched peas into a petit pois a la française, a French dish that adds bacon lardons, spring lettuce, pearl onions, and bechamel sauce (if you’re unfamiliar, it’s a simple sauce made with milk, butter, and flour—follow Mario Batali's classic recipe). The beauty of the dish is "the combination between the sweet pea and earthy lettuce," Hands says.
Compared to the delicacy of the peas, the rest of the dish is relatively simple: Cook the bacon lardons until they sizzle, then add the pearl onions and washed lettuce before folding in your blanched peas. Then top with a "nice spoonful" of bechamel sauce. ("The mistake here is people get too aggressive on the bechamel," Hands says. "Coat the dish to have a nice binding, so it doesn't overpower things.") Top off the dish with a small splash of champagne vinegar, added just before serving so the lettuce doesn't wilt.
All of this too much trouble? Shell your peas and eat them raw. "It's so beautiful, that natural sweetness when you haven't altered it at all," Hands says.
Petit Pois a la Française
To serve 4 people:
- 400g fresh petit pois
- 100g bacon lardons, cut ½” thick and rendered until crispy
- 40 pearl onions – braised until tender
- 1 head Lolla Rosa lettuce – cleaned, dried, and cut in to 8 pieces
- 100g bechamel sauce
- Blanch the petit pois in boiling salted water for 3 minutes—you want around 5 times the amount of water to the peas. Immediately dip in an ice bath with a 50:50 ice to water ratio. Leave until the peas are completely cold, then remove and pat dry.
- Place the bacon lardon in a medium-sized sauce pot and heat until sizzling. Add the pearl onions and lettuce.
- Once the lettuce begins to wilt, add the blanched peas and bind with the bechamel sauce.
- Season with salt and champagne vinegar and serve immediately.