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Nelson Mandela: A life in pictures
Nelson Mandela and his wife Winnie in this undated file picture.
I guess I’m starting to get a bit of a reputation for my stance on peas, even if it’s a muddled one. Let me clear the air here: I love them all the different ways. I love them raw when they’re fresh and tender, just minutes-picked. I love them briefly sautéed, enough to heat them through but still keep their sugar sweetness and their irresistible pop. And, most controversially, I also love them with the hell cooked out of them, when they deform into wrinkle-skinned beads, but take on a wonderfully savory, creamy character.
But, in our nuance-free world of sound bites and split-second judgments, I’ve been painted for my love of army-green peas as a pea hater, a pea abuser. Hey, it’s OK. It’s understandable. Traumatic memories of canned peas can make us think that the only truly right way to treat peas is to make them as little like our school cafeterias as possible. And, I admit, the tenderness of my feelings toward the things can sometimes be overshadowed by the vehemence of my passion:
Screw giving peas a chance. I’m sick of those disappointing little bastards. Look at them. “Oh! Pretty! Green! I feel like I’m in a garden and rabbits are talking to squirrels and sharing cups of afternoon tea.” And then you eat a spoonful and they’re a mouthful of pebbles, hard and mealy and starchy. It’s a punishment for daring to dream.
So I’ve pretty much given up on peas, with an ex-lover kind of bitterness. But when I’m feeling fair, I can see it’s not their fault, really. The thing with peas is that they’re really legumes. They just want to fit in with their cousins Chickpea, Black Eyed Pea, and Pigeon Pea.
It’s that last part of my rant that holds the key to everything cooks need to know about peas. The truth is that peas are beans, but, because they’re picked so young, they’re tender and full of sugar when right off the plant. This is when they’re amazing eaten raw, right out of your fist. This is when they taste like a present from Mother Earth, an apology for the winter wrapped up in a bow and delivered by a singing banana telegram lady.
But those sugars don’t want to be sugars forever — or even an hour, really. Literally within minutes of being plucked, the sugars in peas start to convert to more complex starches, and their bright flavor and tenderness begin to fade. No problem, though: This is where you cook them lightly — a quick sauté, or a fast blanch in boiling water, just enough to warm them through — and you can still savor their spring charms.
After a couple of days, though, those sugars will be all starchy, turning the pea mealy and hard. This is what drives me crazy: when the pea is past its youthful prime, but people still insist on serving them raw or barely cooked. Dude, sorry, but that’s gnarly. But hey, my love doesn’t fade alongside their tenderness. A days-old, mealy pea isn’t a lost cause! That’s where slow cooking comes into play. Like with their dried bean cousins, a nice, slow stewing makes those same starches creamy, smooth, and nutty, even buttery — totally new characteristics, a maturity to be envied. Sure, you lose their bright green color when you cook them that long, but you know that old age and treachery always beat youth and beauty, right?
So, below: three ways to showcase peas, depending on just how fresh and young they really are. The key is to taste them. If they’re good enough to eat raw, by all means, do so. If they’re starting to get a little bit of starchiness, sautéing or quickly cooking them will be great. But if they’re heading toward hard and mealy, you’ll have to get ready to really cook them.
(Oh, and incidentally, I think frozen peas are fantastic; the peas get processed and frozen so quickly after harvest that they actually stay tender and sweet.)
For the freshest spring peas:
Petit pos au naturel
For still-tender peas:
Sautéed peas with roasted mushrooms
There are no measurements here, because how much of each ingredient to use just depends on how much you like that thing. But this combination of peas’ springtime freshness and the deep, caramelized, savory flavor from the mushrooms is a life changer. To turn this simple dish into a satisfying meal, just add a little more olive oil, toss it all with hot pasta, and shave some parmesan or pecorino cheese on top.
Plain old supermarket white mushrooms, scrubbed clean
Extra virgin olive oil
Shallots, garlic or onions (whichever), chopped fine
Salt and pepper
Thyme, chopped (optional)
For still-tender or firmer, older peas:
Cumin-ginger stewed peas
I kind of just want to say, “Hey, if you have great fresh peas that are a few days old, just boil some good chicken stock, dump them in, some salt, crack some pepper, and just simmer the peas in the stock until they’re tender and earthy.” But this recipe, too, will even better highlight the pea’s ability to turn nutty, almost buttery, and absorb flavors as it smoothes out with a bit of a longer cooking time. Adapted from Camellia Panjabi’s fantastic 50 Great Curries of India.
Serves 2-3 as a main course with rice; more as a side
4 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 medium onions, preferably not Vidalia or other very sweet varieties, cut into pea-size dice
2 cloves garlic, chopped fine
1-inch-square chunk of ginger, peeled, chopped fine
1 jalapeño, or a more intense pepper if you’re macho, chopped fine
1 teaspoon whole cumin seeds
½ teaspoon coriander powder
2 teaspoon cumin powder
½ teaspoon red chile powder, or to taste
2 cups shelled peas, about 8 ounces by weight
1 small carrot, cut in pea-size dice
Salt, to taste
Water, or chicken stock if you’re awesome
Serve on its own, with naan bread, or steamed basmati rice. (For a basmati recipe, click here, but feel free to leave out the cumin.)
Nelson Mandela and his wife Winnie in this undated file picture.
Mandela is accompanied by his former wife Winnie, moments after his release from prison February 11, 1990 after serving 27 years in jail. (Reuters)
In this February, 1990 photo, shortly after his release from 27 years in prison, Nelson Mandela, gives the black power salute to the 120,000 supporters packing Soccer City stadium in Soweto, near Johannesburg. (AP Photo)
Nelson Mandela showed his passport in February 19, 1990, shortly after his release from prison. The South African government authorized an application for himself and his wife Winnie - (Juda Ngwenya / Reuters)
In this July 27, 1991 photo, Cuban President Fidel Castro, and Nelson Mandela gesture during the celebration of the "Day of the Revolution" in Matanzas, Cuba. (AP Photo)
In this July 4, 1993 photo, President Bill Clinton and Nelson Mandela listen during Fourth of July ceremonies in Philadelphia during which Clinton presented the Philadelphia Liberty Medal to the African National Congress president and South African President F.W. de Klerk. (AP Photo/Greg Gibson)
President of the African National Congress Nelson Mandela acknowledges cheers from the crowd as he prepares to unveil the ANC's official election platform in 1994. (AP Photo/David Brauchli)
African National Congress (ANC) leader Nelson Mandela greeted residents of Mmabatho in March 1994, during a visit after the nominal homeland came under South African control following the ousting of the former President Lucas Mangope. (Reuters/Howard Burditt)
South African President Nelson Mandela smiles with actor Sidney Poitier at a press conference in Cape Town in 1996. Poitier played Mandela in the film "One Man, One Vote" (AP Photo / Sasa Kralj)
South African President Nelson Mandela waves to crowds as he sits next to Queen Elizabeth II in a an open carriage on the way to Buckingham Palace.(AP/Louisa Buller)
Chairman of the Constitutional Assembly Cyril Ramaphosa, left, holds up a copy of the country's constitution which was signed by President Nelson Mandela, in December 1996. (AP Photo / Adil Bradlow / POOL)
Nelson Mandela at a news conference in Johannesburg in February 2000. (AP Photo / Denis Farrell)
South African rugby captain Francois Pienaar, right, received the Rugby World Cup trophy from President Nelson Mandela also wearing a South African rugby shirt, after South Africa defeated New Zealand in the Rugby World Cup , in 1995. (AP Photo / Ross Setford)