Last week a friend presented me with a plastic bag full of English peas from her garden. A gift given from someone’s garden is a profound gesture, and one should always be grateful; on the other hand, peas were a bugaboo of my childhood, apparently grown in the freezer and heated up from time to time for a mushy soupçon of dinnertime distress. Moreover, these newfangled peas, although fresh — an unfamiliar wrinkle — would need to be shelled before they could be used.
“What should I do with the peas?” I asked their grower, after thanking her for the gift.
“Oh, whatever!” she said. “I’m going to throw some in my pasta tonight.” She spoke in the manner of a pea grower for whom peas were in their season of ubiquity — a commonplace to be scattered everywhere, like ground black pepper or wild oats. The important thing was to scatter them somewhere.
“Hmmm,” I said, my thoughts running not toward pasta but toward corn, which I had bought incontinently at the farmers market a few days earlier. Corn does not ring the alarm bells of memory the way peas do, but still: it often sprang from the freezer, like green peas and sometimes with them.
The word “succotash,” we learn from The New Joy of Cooking, is derived from the Narragansett word “msickquatash,” which means “boiled corn kernels,” and the book’s basic recipe involves boiling corn kernels with lima and cranberry beans in reduced cream, with thyme and butter added near the end.
In my version, peas — of course, and duly shelled! — stood in for the beans. I parboiled a cup of them for no more than two minutes, just to make sure they would be fully cooked, since corn kernels cook quite quickly. (For the corn kernels, I stripped two ears.) Also, I dispensed with the heavy whipping cream in favor of a half cup or so of half-and-half, and I added a pat of sweet butter at the outset for a little extra richness. I added the thyme, too, at the beginning of the cooking instead of the end, to give the dried leaves more time to unwind. Over a medium flame, the cooking liquid thickened up nicely in just two or three minutes, with the occasional stir-around. At the end, a good pinch or two of salt and a twist of pepper. Q: How was it? A: the Narragansett word for “fabulous.”