From Leipoldt’s Cellar & Kitchen
by C. Louis Leipoldt
Pulses are perhaps the oldest food known to humankind.
My old Tannie, who is glancing over my shoulder as I write, just shakes her head.
‘As far as I know,’ she says, in that dreadful, oh-so-sweet manner she adopts when she wants to demolish me, ‘our dear Lord said that for food He gave us the plants that have seeds, and all the trees that bear fruit. Is that not what is said in Genesis 1 verse 29?’
‘Absolutely right, Tannie,’ I answer, not at all put out, ‘but Tannie is forgetting that pulses also have seeds, and the scientific know-alls maintain that pulses, like lentils and peas, not grasses like wheat and rye, were our very first food.’
‘They have a lot to say,’ Tannie snaps at me. ‘Today they talk of vitamins that the Holy Scripture doesn’t even mention. All just talk.’
‘When it comes to the vitamins, I completely agree, Tannie. But please – I have to have this piece ready before this evening.’
By the way, my Tannie is one of the few cooks of my acquaintance who knows how to do things with peas. I have her to thank for being able to distinguish between peas and peas, for having learned the difference between peas that honour their name and peas that could just as well have been acorns.
Cooking peas – peas suitable for the table – are young peas, not those usually passed off as cooking peas that you have to pay a fortune for in these days of controlled vegetables. Real cooking peas are young, soft, virgin-green, juicy and plump. You usually only get them if you have a row of peas in your own garden. Do not wait until the pods are thick and fat – the less they look like a water-loving creature’s thighs, the better they are for the pot. Therefore watch your peas closely, and as soon as the pods show signs of bulging, pick and shell them. Then you will get the young peas the connoisseur prefers; and, believe me, there is no other vegetable that comes even close!
To prepare such young peas requires expertise and what my tannie calls ’n slag (a knack). When it comes to expertise, I agree. Concerning ’n slag – well, one could argue endlessly about that without coming to any worthwhile conclusion. I know of an old Ayah who, according to the general testimony of the families she’s cooked for, had a remarkable ‘knack’ for colouring tartlets a beautiful golden yellow. When she told me her secret, however – well, since that day, I’ve always been a bit nervous when presented with a golden yellow tartlet.
To return to the young peas, for heaven’s sake do not wash them. It’s possible that a worm might be hiding in the pod, in which case just show him that he does not belong there. That’s all that is really necessary. Place the peas in a saucepan, with just enough water – of preferably some meat soup – to quench their thirst when it starts getting hot. Close the lid, and let them cook in their own steam without adding anything whatsoever. To add mint, lemon peel, nutmeg, or whatever, is an affront to them and an insult to your own taste. And do not cook them for too long. Very young peas – I am dealing only with them – do not require more than a quarter of an hour in the saucepan. As soon as they are soft and mushy, take them from the fire, sprinkle with a pinch of sugar and salt, and add a lump of butter – the best available, of course. Shake the saucepan, without taking off the lid, until the peas are well oiled by the butter. Serve immediately. Now that really is an excellent dish to serve a guest.
When peas are older, and swollen with more body, the cook can still prepare them in this way. Indeed, it is the usual way of cooking peas. But the connoisseur will not like it. The full-grown pea does not have the soft juiciness of the baby pea, and this is why it is smothered with mint that overwhelms the taste of the pea. No, use the full-grown pea for making soup or purée. An excellent soup can be made from it – the so-called Potage St Germain. Its basis is a good consommé, preferably made from chicken bones and veal. Cook the peas in the manner mentioned above, and mash them. Then cook them for half an hour in the soup, strain through a collander, and heat until the soup is velvety and even. Add spice, salt and pepper, and bring to the boil again. When it starts bubbling, add a cup of cream or two cups of milk, and serve immediately with small pieces of toast.
Some cookbooks suggest that one should colour this soup by adding spinach juice, to give it a nice green appearance. I disagree, just as I oppose the idea of insulting peas, or indeed any green vegetable, by cooking them with bicarbonate of soda. Green pea soup does not have to be leaf-green. The more cream or milk you add, the less green it will be – but it will not taste any the less good.
My old tannie interrupts me again. ‘But who would make pea soup without onions? You don’t seem to have the faintest idea of what’s appropriate. Why don’t you tell the people …’
Well, there are cooks who start by frying sliced onion, a sliced leek, a slice of sour apple and a snippet of mace in butter, adding it to the pea purée and then boiling it all up together as a soup. This is purely a matter of taste, and I am liberal and tolerant enough not to regard this as heretical. But I prefer myPotage St Germain without onion, celery or mace. A combined vegetable soup is something I esteem very highly, but it is something different from a green pea soup.
Speaking of heretics, heresy is – according to the dictionaries – the wilful rejection of a generally accepted doctrine of faith. There are no such doctrines in the art of cooking, for otherwise there would be no culinary art. Cooking is learned through experimentation and experience, and sometimes by accident.
If Oom Karools – who was in France during the last war and there acquired the habit of sprinkling cheese over his soup – wishes to eat his pea soup with cheese over it, I shall not feel obliged to drag him to the pyre in a chequered sanbenito. The fellow has his own life to lead and his own taste, and that is that.
But the taste of green peas has a character all of its own, and I regard it as worthless and unnecessary to try to improve it by adding and supplementing all sorts of things.
It’s a different matter when you’re dealing with dried peas, but that’s a separate topic.