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Cooking Off the Cuff: Maybe the Best Way to Cook Peas

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The easiest ways to cook freshly shelled peas are (1) to boil or steam them; and, much better and actually quicker, (2) to put them in a pan with butter, salt and very little water, cover the pan and cook until done: they steam in that bit of liquid plus their own juices -- which combine with the butter to form a light sauce. And with young early-summer peas that's about all you need to know (unless you want to get into the more elaborate à la française method, with little onions and bacon and strips of lettuce, which is one of the world's greatest dishes and well worth the effort).

But this spring, during an exhilarating dinner at Jean-Georges in New York, Jackie and I learned that one additional step -- also simple -- can turn those plain butter-gilded peas into something new and even more wonderful: something with that same clear pea-and-butter-and-salt flavor, but with a whole new consistency, which the restaurant's executive chef, Mark Lapico, rightly described as almost like that of a riceless (and less creamy) risotto.

That step is to crush the peas, roughly, before cooking them. Just put them in the food processor and pulse until most of the peas are broken up. For about two cups of raw shelled peas, this took me eight brief pulses, but let your eyes be your guide: A few should remain whole, most should be in halves or other pieces of various sizes and some should be finely chopped. You can do this a little while in advance, but the actual cooking takes almost no time and should be done at the last minute.

To make my own clumsy approximation of the Jean-Georges dish, I put the peas in a pan that was wider than it was deep -- though using a really shallow skillet would carry the risk of peas flying across the room as you stir them -- and, over medium-high heat, added salt, one tablespoon of butter and two of water. When the water began to boil, I used a heat-proof silicone spatula (a spoon would be fine, of course) to stir constantly and fairly vigorously. This agitation created a light emulsion consisting of water, butter and the finest-chopped, almost pureed, peas; the larger pieces of pea were surrounded by this near-sauce. Hence the somewhat risotto-like feeling in the mouth. Once the water boiled, the cooking took about a minute; if your peas are more mature or starchier than mine were, it could take longer, in which case you'd want to guard against burning and might need to sprinkle in an extra few teaspoons of water to keep the mixture moist and risotto-like. At the very end, I stirred in another scrap of butter, still vigorously.

We ate ours as a dish in itself, along with young carrots and crusty bread and butter, but this would be wonderful with a poached egg or two -- or of course as an accompaniment to a light meat or fish dish. Pretty soon, just a little later in the season when the peas can take longer cooking, I'll go back to the bacon-onion-lettuce method and will probably describe it in a future "Cooking Off the Cuff." But for now I can think of nothing much better than a dinner of plain crushed peas.

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