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Chef John Foster: ‘Convenience over quality’ debate mixes in cost, availability, and even climate

There are subtle changes this time of year, things dropping in and out without a lot of fanfare and hype. The speed at which some of these products go through the market is astonishing, and makes it that much more intimidating to try and buy and eat local.

Just when I’m used to getting my asparagus, it’s gone from the market. It would be so much easier if it’s there when I need it. Well, that’s the point of eating local; eating the product when it’s at its best, not when it’s convenient. It’s a paradox at the very heart of the local foods movement and one which prevents significant growth to occur with any great speed.

The “convenience over quality” debate also mixes in cost, availability, and even climate. We as consumers tend to shake these things out a little easier these days, we are more comfortable with going without when the season has changed.

But still the majority want what they want, when they want it, and it needs to be cheap.

Which brings us back to sugar snaps and asparagus, greens and foraged mushrooms, here today and gone tomorrow throws a huge wrench into even the best eating seasonal diets especially on a restaurant scale. They suffer when calculated gambles on seasonal food sometimes don’t pan out. That’s especially true when your demographics are used to having stable menus, with no gaps or even vagueness.

To combat that we employ specials far more readily and with a different purpose. We’re not using older product up, we’re providing platforms to highlight local ingredients that may not be abundant or long lived but are worth the trouble just the same.

One such item is the sugar snap pea. Recently conceived as a stand-alone variety they combine the best properties of English peas and snow peas into an edible package of flavor and texture that fills a springtime plate with vibrant color and sweetness. Best consumed late May to early June, they are the poster child for brevity.

The slightest hint of hot, stuffy weather and they’re gone, poof, like a mirage. It’s especially maddening when you get a bag of them in late summer, expecting the grassy freshness and tender bite of spring. You will be eternally disappointed. That’s true with most of the pea varieties as we fly through the last of the cool weather vegetables. Cool, colorful and crisp. The very best of snow peas, sugar snaps and English peas are a not so subtle reminder of the scarcity of a true Kentucky spring.

Sugar snaps require very little in the way of prep. There may be a slight string down one side that grows more apparent the older the vine gets. There will be water blemishes that are far more noticeable simply because of the otherworldly color of the pea.

If the blemishes and marks are not bruises you should get a short amount of shelf life, but don’t ever stockpile peas, the minute they are picked and refrigerated the clock is ticking. Pods shrink, sugars in the peas change, much like corn, and the general overall integrity of the peas suffers.

To blanch or not to blanch is a question best left to situation. What are you going for with your dish? If its color you want, the natural color of fresh sugar snaps is eye catching raw, mind boggling when blanched. If you do blanch only do so for seconds, and make sure you have ice water to chill and set.

Additionally, you want to chill and remove from the water, if not they will absorb the water they’re in and get mushy. Cooked or not cooked? I will eat them raw, right off the vine, the flavor is most intense that way. The texture of uncooked or briefly blanched is far different than cooking the sugar snap in a pan of boiling water or stir-frying them in a wok.

The presence of a fat on the surface of the peas tends to mute flavor and texture, weighing the peas down when they should float. A brief interplay with sweet butter in a bowl of blanched peas is the best method of combining fat and peas, so too is a touch of vinaigrette with a good olive oil and some lemon.

The image of a mixed vegetable salad with a creamy ranch or a stir-fry tossed with soy and sesame is a generally accepted dish, but then we lose the best qualities of the vegetable. Better to buy and cook as quickly and simply as we can as the ethereal nature of sugar snaps will do most of our work for us.
Sauté of red onion, mushroom and sugar snaps — this is a great vegetable side, pasta or risotto addition and/or a wonderful omelet mix. The trick is blanching your sugar snaps and then tossing them into the sauté at the last minute.

The red onion should be sliced thin, the mushrooms done the same way, and both sautéed together in clarified butter or olive oil until they start to brown. Season with salt and cracked black pepper and then add your sugar snaps just to warm. The sweetness of the peas and red onion go very well together, supported by the umami of the mushrooms.

Bowl of peas — Blanch, but don’t shock your sugar snaps and while still hot dress with cold butter, salt, pepper and a bit of lemon. Add the lemon last so as not to turn the color a dull grey green.

Raw with a sesame citrus dipping sauce — There is no recipe for what I do here, more of a taste and season. The sugar snaps need to be washed and strung, the dressing can have fresh ginger and toasted garlic as a base, and from there work in orange, lemon and even a bit of grapefruit.

Add a touch of soy for salt, not for the base of the sauce. If it’s heat you want stick with siracha or sambal, but don’t overwhelm the peas. This may be tossed or dipped, and even used with rice sheets to roll summer rolls.

John Foster is an executive chef who heads the culinary program at Sullivan University’s Lexington campus. A New York native, Foster has been active in the Lexington culinary scene and a promoter of local and seasonal foods for more than 20 years. The French Culinary Institute-trained chef has been the executive chef of his former restaurant, Harvest, and now his Chevy Chase eatery, The Sage Rabbit.

To read more from Chef John Foster, including his recipes, click here.

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