Wednesday, August 01, 2012

Green Pea Soup

A few weeks ago I made pea soup for M.F.K. Fisher. It sounds kind of silly, but I like to celebrate her birthday every year. I feel sort of like she's my kindred spirit/fairy godmother and to honor her birthday just feels right. I typically make a big, three course meal, drink lots of rose or Champagne, and then ease into the 4th of July celebration. It works. 

This year I was feeling a bit more retro in my approach. Maybe it was because I had just finished reading The Help and was seriously obsessed with the idea of making a layer cake. But it was also because as I've gotten a bit older, I've begun to think of Fisher's creative life a little differently. 

After I turned in the manuscript for An Extravagant Hunger, I got to work curating pieces to include in two new books of Fisher's writing: Love in a Dish and Musings on Wine and Other Libations. Both are collections of "lesser known" Fisher pieces. The books include a lot of pieces that she wrote for magazines like House Beautiful, Holiday, and House and Garden. These are not the lyrical wanderings of a girl eating bread and chocolate on a French country hillside. This is the work she did for pay. The articles with menus for June bridal lunches helped get food on the table and care for her two little girls. 

I've long believed that Fisher felt alienated by the prissy, ultra-feminine, domestic culture that was so prevalent in the Post World War II 1950s. The magazine pieces she wrote during that time embraced the zeitgeist, but they don't really reflect how she felt about food and nourishment. In fact, I think that culture (in addition to her family responsibilities) may be why she didn't publish more during this time. 

I understand more than I used to how hard it is to write for pay versus writing for love. And maybe that's what I was trying to honor with this menu -- Fisher's creativity and talent, her ambition and her hard working attitude. Because there is a difference in the work we do for love and the work we do because we need to work. 

We began with pea soup, followed by chilled chicken-tarragon salad and greens, a cheese plate, and a towering chocolate cake with strawberry icing. Note: I don't really think Fisher was a layer cake kind of gal. But I do think she was a woman of convictions, and I was convinced I needed to bake a cake. Tout suite. 

The pea soup was, of course, a direct homage to Fisher who wrote several times about peas grown on a Switzerland hillside:

"But what really mattered, what piped the high unforgettable tune of perfection, were the peas, which came from their hot pot onto our thick china plates in a cloud, a kind of miasma, of everything that anyone could ever want from them, even in a dream. I recalled the three basic requisites, according to Fanny Farmer and Escoffier... and again I recalled Sidney Smith, who once said that his idea of Heaven (and he was a cleric!) was pate de foie gras to the sound of trumpets. Mine, that night and this night too, is fresh garden peas, picked and shelled by my friends, to the sound of a cowbell."
{From P is for Peas, from An Alphabet for Gourmets by M.F.K. Fisher}

Is this soup heaven? Who knows. But it sure seemed perfect that night.

Fresh Pea Soup
From the Barefoot Contessa At Home

Ina notes: This soup can be served hot or cold. If served cold, allow the flavors to chill in the fridge for a bit. If you can't find fresh peas, frozen are just fine. 
I note: Who wants to shell 5 cups of fresh peas? Frozen are fine.

2 Tablespoons unsalted butter
2 cups chopped leeks, white and green parts (2 leeks)
1 cup chopped yellow onion
4 cups chicken stock, preferably homemade
5 cups shelled peas or two 10 oz packages frozen peas
2/3 cup fresh mint leaves, loosely packed
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon fresh ground black pepper
1/2 cup creme fraiche
1/2 cup chopped fresh chives
Garlic Croutons, for serving

Heat the butter in a large saucepan, add the leeks and onion, and cook over medium-low heat for 5 to 10 minutes, until the onion is tender. Add the chicken stock, increase the heat to high, and bring to a boil. Add the peas and cook 3 to 5 minutes, until the peas are tender. (Frozen peas will take only 3 minutes). Off the heat add the mint, salt, and pepper

Puree the soup in batches: place 1 cup of soup in a blender with the lid on top and puree on low. With the blender still running, open the vent hole and slowly add more soup until the blender is 3/4 full. Pour the soup into a large bowl and repeat till all the soup is pureed. Whisk in the creme fraiche and chives and taste for seasoning. Serve with garlic croutons. 

Garlic Croutons
1/2 loaf good bakery white bread (French, Italian) sliced 1/2 inch thick
1 large garlic clove
2 tablespoons good garlic oil
Kosher salt and black pepper

Remove crusts from bread slices and cut into 1/2 inch thick cubes. 
Crush the garlic with the side of a large chef's knife and discard the peel. In a medium sautee pan, heat the olive oil over medium heat and add the garlic. Cook for 1 minute until the garlic starts to brown, and then discard the garlic. Add the bread cubes, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and cook over medium heat, tossing occasionally, until browned on all sides. 

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