The peas are winding their way up their rusty frames, tied here and there with garden twine, and doing well in this season's mixed weather. I plant them not for a crop, to be self-sufficient in green peas, but to eat them on the hoof, before they ever reach the kitchen. You need space to grow enough peas for more than a couple of Sunday roasts.
But grow them I do. Those that escape being wolfed in the vegetable patch will be thrown, raw, into salads of York ham with a mustard and olive oil dressing or a toss-up of torn smoked mackerel, croutons and pea shoots. This last ingredient was, until recently, the gardener's secret salad leaf, the curling tendrils that graced many an allotment salad. The pea shoot's popularity is not without good reason. Light, edible stems, a sweet, green-pea flavour and pretty on the plate, this is a delightful addition to the salad bowl.
Peas work rather well with watercress, too. The pepperiness of the watercress leaf is what makes it a sound addition to a salad of peas, broad beans and, say, warm roast chicken. Add watercress to a pea soup and you will introduce a depth of flavour that peas alone cannot produce. The slight heat from these leaves takes the over-sweet edge off a pure pea soup. I can't imagine how many peas you would need to pod for a pot of homemade pea soup. Perhaps that is the reason I bulk my green soups out with watercress, potatoes and lettuce.
This week I made enough pea soup to feed an army, partly for a soup which I served with crisp toasts and nutmeg-flavoured prawns and partly to use the next day as a base for a green risotto. Using soup in place of stock gave my rice an exceptionally velvety texture. The colour is vibrant, the flavour deep and much richer than if I just added peas to a simple risotto. Only the touch of pedant in me prevented me from calling this soupy textured rice a risotto.
Frozen peas are a good-value, instant alternative to fresh for soup. I use them all the time. But what I miss is shelling the peas from their pods, the soft trice of fresh peas falling into the colander, the 15-minute sit-down in the garden, the handful that disappears into my mouth as I work, and the quiet pop of the pods as I press them with my thumb. I will never knock the usefulness of a bag of Birds Eye, but how I would miss my row of peas, their wire-thin stalk curling round the canes, their butterfly-wing leaves and the fresh green crunch of their pods.
Pea and watercress soup with prawn soldiers
A brilliant emerald soup to be served hot or cold, with seafood soldiers on the side. Should you decide to serve it cold, then chill it thoroughly, adding an ice cube as it comes to the table. Cold soups should always be just that - cold. Serves 4.
medium shallots 2
olive oil 1 tbsp
peas 500g podded weight
vegetable stock 1 litre
watercress a bunch
Peel the shallots and chop them finely, then let them cook in the oil over a moderate heat until they are soft and translucent. Tip in the peas and the stock, then stir and leave to simmer for five minutes.
Put most of the peas and the liquid into a food processor or blender and blitz until smooth, add the watercress and continue processing till smooth, then return to the rest of the soup. This way will give you a lightly textured soup, more interesting than a totally smooth one. Check the seasoning and serve with the prawn toasts below.
I have used mace here. Its sweet, earthy note is what gives most brands of potted shrimps their distinctive flavour. If you buy it specially for this it is worth remembering to use it for pâtés and pork terrines and even prawn cocktail. Serves 4.
shelled prawns 150g
ground mace a pinch
baguette 1 small one
Roughly chop the prawns. Cube the butter and mash the chopped prawns into it. Season with black pepper and the ground mace.
Thinly slice the baguette. Spread the prawn butter on to the bread and bake for 10 minutes at 200C/gas mark 6, or cook under an overhead grill if you prefer. Serve with the pea soup (above).
Green pea rice
Made in much the same way as a risotto, this cheap dish is made from rice swollen with soup rather than stock. It retains the freshness of the pea soup, but is richer and more sustaining. I like to serve this with raw pea shoots tossed with olive oil and lemon and piled on top of the cooked rice. Serves 2-3.
onion 1, small
butter a thick slice
arborio rice 150g
pea soup 400ml (above)
vegetable stock a little
Peel and very finely chop the onion, then cook it in the butter over a moderate heat until soft but still pale and not coloured. Add the rice, stir for a few seconds, then slowly ladle in the soup. Stir regularly, just as if you were making a risotto with stock, until the rice seems tender but still has a little bite to it. Add hot stock as necessary if the mixture seems too thick. Check the seasoning. I sometimes like to stir in a little butter at the end.
Email Nigel at firstname.lastname@example.org
Photo Credit: The good and the green: pea and watercress soup with prawn soldiers. Photograph: Jonathan Lovekin for the Observer