peas, broad beans, mackerel

Some thoughts on fresh peas, their upsides and downsides, a bit of praise for Italian summer soups, and what gooseberries have to do with mackerel.

The thing I like most about fresh peas is the light clatter they make tumbling from their pods into a large porcelain bowl. At least for the first few pods. Unusually for a chilled-out sort of kitchen task, I find shelling peas gets a bit samey after a while. I love the steady ladle-by-ladle progress of a risotto, or the tricky picking of a great spider crab, or cutting little crosses in the stalks of brussels sprouts. But there’s something irritating about pea pods that defies deftness, or it does in me. And then, once shelled and blanched, the peas themselves always turn out to be rather starchier than their bagged-up, frozen siblings. Not that that’s always a bad thing. Maturation isn’t a byword for deterioration and it’s good to taste a pea that’s developed starchy qualities out of the original, sometimes almost sickly, sweetness which freezing preserves so well. But unless you have your own in the garden, so that they go from plant to pot in a matter of minutes, a certain off-sweet, off-peak, off-the-boil starchiness is pretty much what you come to expect from fresh peas.

(If you do have your own in the garden or on an allotment, they’re probably at their most satisfying snaffled straight from the plant. I found this out when mum and I were house-sitting for some friends a couple of weeks ago.)

Most of the time, then, I stick with Birds Eye’s finest – or even just comfortingly utilitarian bags of Basics garden peas (“a little less sweet, still go down a treat”). But today I bought some fresh ones off the market and, though still pert, they’d started to get a bit starchy round the collar – so I thought I’d make soup. And I’d pair them with broad beans for another lovely texture and flavour of summery pulse.

This is an Italian take on these two ingredients. Italian soups tend either to be brothy – lovely light meat stocks with little dumplings, pieces of pasta, lightly cooked vegetables, slices of poached meats – or really thick: thick soups which combine ingredients in various states and textures in order to show off a spectrum of different qualities. In this way, very few, very humble things – stale bread and tomato, white bean and parsley – become something quite glorious. In this case with peas and broad beans, some will be whole, some pureed, some coarsely chopped, some will be cooked longer so that they disintegrate into nourishing mush, some are only blanched so they retain a green, tender life and are added at the end. The whole is very thick, like a rough purée, and is a great vehicle for a swathe of good olive oil. Some flakes of salt over the top, a few lactic, savoury curls of pecorino, are certainly in order if the fancy takes you. Thick soups like this are always best eaten warm, not hot.

Following the soup I had a couple of fillets of mackerel. Here I’ve served it with crushed new potatoes in a Dijon mustard dressing, which is rather tart and vinegary. I’ve then spooned a sharp little vinaigrette over everything and added a few flakes of salt round the plate. This counters the richness of the fish. I also think it’s important to season the fish itself quite heavily before cooking. What makes these oily fish – sardines, mackerel etc – so satisfying when cooked over barbecues in the south of France or elsewhere in the Med, or just under the cottonwool clouds of home, is not so much the woodsmoke (though of course it contributes a great deal) but the wonderful crust that forms on the outside: a savoury blistering of the skin and fat with lots and lots of coarse sea salt. Salt, as much as acid, really does the job of making fat, rich things delectable. (If not delish!) This is especially important when frying fish: things can get all too blandly oily.

I was going to have it with gooseberries, but the lady on the market stall said that gooseberries are over for the year – the green ones, that is; the little pinkish ones they call (absurdly) “eating gooseberries” are still around. I’ve seen several chefs on television/in magazines under the impression that the combination of gooseberries and mackerel is either something very modern, or something rather medieval or eighteenth century. That’s true, but really the idea has always been quite current. Elizabeth David gives a good recipe in Spices, Salt and Aromatics in the English Kitchen (and suggests the pleasant addition of a little ginger). She also points out, interestingly, that the French name for gooseberries, groseilles à maquereau (groseilles being redcurrants), associates them already with mackerel. She assumes that this has something to do with their frequent pairing. But I wonder whether someone with an keen eye for the picturesque didn’t notice a sort of similarity between the beautiful veining of gooseberries and sheeny mackerel scales, and think, Ah oui! mackerelcurrants!

I don’t know.

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