Peas don’t go

Flash in the Pan

“Nobody wants to say ‘mutton’ anymore,” complained my friend, the farmer known as El Jefe. “As a society we’ve shunned the eating of grown-up sheep in favor of young lambs to the point where even saying the word ‘mutton’ is like talking filth in some circles, and that’s a shame.”

This aside was by way of explaining the significance of a special salad of peas, romaine and mutton that El Jefe and his family like to eat in summer.

“There are lots of reasons to love this salad,” he continued. “And they all are enhanced by the fact that you get to say ‘mutton.'”

El Jefe’s wife, Tough Love, who calls him “El Hefty,” said, “I like the salad because it’s quick—provided you get the kids to pick and shell the peas, and you make the Special Crème the night before.”

Special Crème, to a certain tribe of hard-cores, is mayonnaise. We generally agree that the best Special Crème can only be homemade, but if you have to use store-bought, Mystic Lakes Creamery is the best option. Under extenuating circumstances, Best Foods [AKA Hellmann’s east of the Rockies] will perform admirably in a pinch—although the ingredients are total schwag, the flavor is within tolerances.

I’m telling you this because Special Crème is the backbone of the dressing for pea mutton salad, a dressing that goes by the name “Creamy.”

Pea mutton salad marks the fleeting peak of summertime, and embodies the farmer’s privilege of eating the Earth’s freshest food. It’s a salad I had to wait two years to try. Two years of El Jefe and Tough Love telling me about the salad after the fact at the farmers’ market. Two years of “Oh, hi Ari! We made The Salad last Wednesday. It was fantastic. We should have called you.”

Yes, they should have called me. I would have been there in a heartbeat.

Instead, summer’s gone in a heartbeat, along with any chance for pea mutton salad. Alas, the salad’s brief window of peak opportunity is defined by pea season—and not just any pea, but shelling peas, which, according to El Jefe, are “real peas.” Ideally, the peas should be full and sweet. And they are used raw.

Unfortunately for you, dear reader, pea season ended weeks ago. But hey, I had to wait two years for this salad, so toughen up.

Truth is, I’ve got a trick that can help you make this salad tonight.

While the peas should be sweet and raw in this salad, the mutton is old, tough, and well-done. This raises a question: Why not use lamb, which is famously tastier and more tender?

“We sell our lamb and eat the aged critters,” Tough Love explains, “and boy are they yummy.”

“Mutton,” said El Jefe.

She says if you trim the fat carefully when you butcher the sheep, the flavor is excellent. And the toughness just means you have to adjust the cooking procedure. “We cook it long and slow,” she says, “in a covered skillet, with plenty of water or juice or wine and some Special Crème. After a few hours, it’s so soft you can drink it with a straw.”

After two years of missing the pea mutton salad party, my lucky day finally arrived the other week, when Tough Love shouted across the market “Hey Ari, tonight’s the night!”

As promised, I was there in a heartbeat.

In summertime, farmers don’t seem to eat dinner until dark—even if dark is 10:30 p.m. Arriving at dusk, my timing was perfect. We sat around the table, kids too, and made relaxed but deliberate work of the enormous bowl of salad in the center. Chopped romaine, the peas, the mutton (which had cooled to room temperature), fresh dill, thin-sliced cucumbers and Walla Walla onions, tossed in Creamy.

This salad was a full meal of textures and flavors, and I was pleased to have finally partaken of its pleasures. But the best part was just to be included in their inner circle at the center of their family farmy universe: the supper table. Outside, crickets and frogs filled the darkness with real country music.

That night, the Creamy contained a 4:1 ratio of mayo to yogurt, with fresh garlic, horseradish, curry powder, shredded cheddar and salt and pepper. But remember, this is a recipe that’s meant to be improvised with what’s available.

And about those peas: While you missed pea season, here is my trick to stick up your collective sleeves: this time of year, the market is flooded with freshly-frozen– i.e., almost fresh – peas. Don’t be afraid to ask for help at the store, since there probably won’t be signs saying “New Crop.” In some places, meanwhile—maybe a store near you - you might find last year’s peas on sale.

Regardless of their age, frozen peas aren’t as likely as Tough Love’s to have been picked at their sweet peak, so they should be lightly steamed to restore sweetness.

And even if the store only sells lamb, you can still call it “mutton” in the context of this salad—if for no other reason than to say it.