Edible Seasonals: Pea Shoots
Spring’s earliest tease is actually its tastiest
By Ellen Jackson
Photo by Leela Cyd
The first edible fruits of spring are often not fruits at all, but the shoots, stalks and tender leaves of plants as they grow to full maturity. Garlic scape curlycues, sprouting brassica buds and pencil-thin leeks: Farmers and gardeners have the pleasure of observing — and tasting — fruit and vegetables throughout their lifecycles. They’ve known what we are just discovering: Most plants are palatable and delicious at several stages of their lives.
Pea shoots — dou maio in Mandarin — are a perfect example. Considered a delicacy by the Chinese, who have been preparing them for centuries, pea shoots are the tips of the pea plant, including the tender stalks, soft upper leaves and curly tendrils. Bright and fresh, they taste like they look — vivid, grassy, green. Asian cultures traditionally harvest the shoots from snow pea vines to use in stir-fries and soups, but the top growth of any variety of garden pea will have a delicate, distinctly pea-like flavor.
We have harvested wild leafy greens since early times, especially those that emerge from recently frozen ground to signal spring. Pea shoots are no exception. They’re like other nutrient-dense greens—low in calories; high in vitamins A and C, folic acid and minerals; and loaded with carotenes and other antioxidants. Peas and beans are similarly good for the health of the soil, favored by farmers as a cover crop planted in the fall to improve soil quality and fertility, manage erosion, suppress weeds and encourage beneficial insects. Besides enriching the soil for later planting, pea shoots provide a great bonus in the form of a food crop. A sustainable win-win.
Even speedier than radishes, another early bloomer favored by impatient gardeners, delicate pea shoots can appear as soon as two weeks after sowing. Because harvesting the young shoots from your crop means you’ll have fewer peas in pods later in the season, set aside a patch or a planter, and over-seed it with peas to be used exclusively for their shoots. They will come back as many as three times after they’ve been cut and, like early spinach and arugula, provide months of salad with minimal attention or effort. Once cut, pea shoots are fragile, like herbs. They’re best kept in an open plastic bag, loosely wrapped in a paper towel and used within two days. The youngest, most tender clippings are good raw, in salads and for garnishing dishes, while slightly larger leaves are perfect for cooking.
The appearance of pea shoots at the market and in our gardens is a sure sign that spring’s arrival is imminent, a season of garden eating following fast on its heels. But before you turn your attention to asparagus and artichokes, alpine strawberries and rhubarb, gather up a bouquet of fragrant pea tips and tendrils, and toss them into a salad or wok. Add them to your sandwich or whir them into pesto. And taste the brightest, tastiest version of the green color of spring.
Pea Shoots Quick & Easy
A messy tangle of pea tendrils satisfies like no other salad green. Dressed lightly with fruity olive oil, fresh lemon juice and flaky sea salt, they express sprightly sweetness. Pea shoots are equally well suited to vinaigrette made with toasted sesame oil, soy sauce and rice wine vinegar. They also play well with others — try a mix of pea shoots and other young greens such as watercress, miner’s lettuce, mache, baby spinach and arugula. Or pile them high on thick slices of bread spread with sweet butter and topped with soft-cooked eggs, ham or poached chicken.
When incorporated during the last moments of cooking, pea shoots retain their vibrant color and flavor and add a hint of crunch, like the arugula on your pizza. Toss ricotta gnocchi with pea shoots; lemon zest; fresh herbs like chives, tarragon, parsley or sage; and shavings of Parmesan cheese. Gently tuck pea shoots into an omelet with several small spoonfuls of goat cheese. Stir them into a fresh pea and spring onion risotto just before serving.
Substitute pea shoots for the basil in a typical pesto recipe. The result can be used to dress pasta or gussy up boiled new potatoes. A thinner version becomes a sauce for poached fish or crab cakes. Like mature peas, pea shoots make delicious soup that is complemented by a variety of ingredients, from bacon to green garlic to fresh mint leaves.
The classic Chinese preparation, likely to be the way most of us first experienced pea shoots on our plates, is flash-fried in a wok or wide sauté pan. Put enough peanut oil in a pan to lightly coat the bottom. When the oil is very hot, add some finely chopped garlic and several large handfuls of clean, dry pea shoots to the pan. Use tongs to turn them over a few times. Remove the pan from the heat after a matter of seconds, as the shoots are beginning to wilt. Drizzle with sesame oil and soy sauce, toss and serve with pan-fried tofu, pork belly or steamed rice.
Ellen Jackson is a Portland-based writer, cookbook author and food stylist.