One of my earliest memories (as usual, involving food) is of eating peapods off the vine in the kitchen garden of my grandfather's factory, somewhere outside of Taipei, where we spent many of our holidays. (These holidays are divided between New York and Taipei and consequently most of my food memories take place in these two cities). I remember peering through the windows of the kitchen, in awe of the gigantic wok, big enough to bathe a small child in, the huge rice cooker that fed everyone who worked there. In the garden were rows of pea vines held up by slim bamboo rods tied together with string, the curling tendrils and tender leaves of pale green concealing the sweet, crunchy pods.
I cannot live without peas. Like broccoli or brussels sprouts or spinach (and all the other vegetables we are supposed to hate), I love peas, and am seldom without a bag or two in the freezer (unless I ate them all the night before). Supposedly frozen ones are better than fresh, something to do with the sugars turning into starch right after the pods are picked from the vine, or something. Of course, there are sugar-snap peas, crisp in their pods and plump with a row of fat little peas, or snow peas, translucent pods barely bulging with their secret bounty, perfect for stir-frying with other vegetables or meats. I would snap the ends off, pull off the strings running lengthwise along the pod.
Fried rice seems austere without the sweet juiciness of a handful (or two) of peas tossed in with the finely chopped scallions and shreds of scrambled egg; add a little ham or bacon and it is a meal, if your idea of a meal is a flexible one (that is, not required a slab of meat or something). Sometimes my mother would stir-fry the peas with cuttlefish balls, chewy white cuttlefish-flavored nuggets (which sounds disgusting, I know, but honestly, I don't know how they are made and I'd like to keep things that way). When it was my turn to cook I would slip in a little butter (since butter makes everything better), or heat some chopped scallions in the oil before adding the peas; the scallions would flavor the hot oil and infuse the peas with their scent. Over rice, with some chicken or braised pork or broiled fish. Dinner, at home. For more glamorous dinners, lately, my mother has taken to tossing petit pois with slivers of prosciutto and stirring a beaten raw egg in, off the heat, just to heat it through, before spooning the peas into endive boats. They are sweet and salty and bitter, hot and cold all at once.
Tonight there is a bowl of macaroni, tossed with petit pois and butter and a fluffy mountain of grated parmegiano-reggiano. In college I would make this with farfalline, tiny bow-tie pasta the size of my pinky fingernail, throw in some flaky Maldon sea salt which would crunch as I ate it. The addition of parmegiano-reggiano is a new conceit, bringing life to the dish with its nutty intensity. The macaroni is perfectly al dente, the peas are sweet, the butter makes everything a little bit creamy, melding with the cheese to make the barest slick of sauce over everything. The perfect dinner for a lazy night, alone. Really, all you need is a bag of peas, the little black dress of the freezer section.