It was a meal of utmost simplicity. Purity, even.
My partner had just departed for Europe, going on a few days ahead of me, and I was spending a bit longer in rural Carmel Valley on the central California coast before joining up together in France. It was early afternoon on a warm, sunny day and driving back to the cottage, I decided to pull over at a roadside organic farm stand, one that I had passed countless times before. On each of my visits to the valley, I’d been meaning to stop and poke around a bit to see what they had on offer. Today was the day.
In the dusty dirt parking area, I parked the car near a chest-height, colorful commotion of
sweet peas along the fenced garden plot—a rowdy extravaganza of fuchsia, light and dark pink, and cranberry-colored blossoms, their curly green tendrils interwoven through the fence. Gorgeous, I thought, I’ll snap a picture. Stepping from the vehicle, still a dozen feet away, I was immediately hit by their sweet, intoxicating fragrance.
Marveling that I could smell them from such a distance, I walked over to examine them closely and bury my nose in the exuberant riot of sweet pea sensuality. Heavenly.
Walking into the Earthbound Farms roadside shop—erected not far from the original field where they grew lettuces, from which they have built an organic produce empire which was recently sold for $600 million—I browsed the selection of local produce available. Along with an array of gourmet food items—jams, honeys, chutneys, chocolates, pantry items—there was the standard offering of organic lettuces, rainbow chard, kale of different varieties, carrots, onions, celery, peppers, zucchini/courgette, etc., all of which looked tempting and appealingly fresh.
Walking along the refrigerated wall of produce, considering my options for supper later on, oddly what beckoned me was the basket of English peas. They were screamingly fresh—so vibrant that I swore they radiated a subtle, invisible glow, as if they had only just come from the field minutes before.
Mind you, peas are not something I would normally tend to gravitate toward. As a vegetable, I’ve never adequately experienced their fresh goodness. This wasn’t helped by my recent years living in England, where peas are terribly popular, but too often I was served ‘mushy peas’ (that’s actually what they call them)—generally an unappealing, lurid green mash of overcooked peas, frequently served alongside fish and chips—and I still failed to see (or taste) their appeal.
Yet the freshness of these plump pods was undeniable and, having recently come from Hawaii where the seasons are negligible (along with the change in fresh or semifresh produce), I was in the mood for some California spring cuisine: favas (broad beans), artichokes, strawberries… even peas. Not sure exactly what I would do with them but unable to resist their crisp green allure, I scooped up a couple of large handfuls and placed them into a bag.
A couple of hours later, having recently nibbled some good olives and an aged, raw Manchego with a glass of wine, I stood in the small kitchen of the cottage and contemplated my supper options. Not feeling overly hungry because of the early evening snack, and having no one to cook for but myself but still desiring something fresh and full of spring flavor, I decided that I would prepare the peas. À la carte. Meals for myself are often quite simple and I adore bright clean flavors, so this would probably hit the mark nicely.
Soft music playing from my iPhone plugged into its countertop music system, a glass of Oregon Pinot Gris standing nearby, I emptied the bag of fresh pods onto the counter. The vibrant jade crescents all had a slight sheen, almost waxy though they were organic. Startlingly crisp. In a relaxed manner, I began shelling them into a white French bowl, feeling utterly content in the simple, somatic meditation of the moment: the quiet pop of the pods beneath my fingers, the waxy green crunch when I would bite into one and marvel at its sweetness. As I worked, the scent that rose to greet me was vegetal, fresh, almost herbaceous––the smell of fresh spring and new life.
Chefs, cookbook authors, and cooking writers—myself included somewhere in the bunch—prattle on about fresh, but that word conveys different things to different people. Cut salad greens in a sealed bag or a plastic clamshell container at the grocery store constitutes ‘fresh’ for most people; to me, despite that those leaves still seem (hopefully) crisp, such food is nearly dead. Picked days or even a week (or more) ago, most produce has already traveled uncountable miles.
As I have written in a previous post, “There’s also that invisible but nevertheless real quality, the ‘life force’––called by various names such as prana, mana, shakti, chi, etc.––that always seems to be minimal (or absent altogether) in commercially prepared or packaged food. When you are accustomed to eating very fresh foods that are close to the source and full of prana, you immediately notice the difference when it’s not there.”
Fast food chains promote ‘fresh’ in their slogans and advertising, and I can only roll my eyes. Please.
Admittedly we eat very fresh at our house, as locally sourced as I can manage—not always easy or much diversity in Hawaii, which is why I love being on the West Coast. Still, I marveled at these gloriously fresh peas. They could only be trumped if I stepped out into a garden (which, alas, I still don’t have) and plucked them from their curling vines and then returned to the kitchen to cook them. (I will admit to unabashed envy of my friends with gardens or allotments who are able to do such a thing.)
Released by my thumb from their snug encasement—which looks curiously like an emerald butterfly when opened—the little malachite pearls tumbled softly into the bowl with a soft, staccato, random cadence. Vivid against the white porcelain, more than once I stopped my work simply to admire the visual appeal. It was an artist’s moment, a culinary love affair… soul food.
Shelling complete, still admiring the mound of gorgeous green peas in the white bowl, I wondered briefly how to cook them in order to best showcase their impeccable freshness. I opted to heat them for the briefest minute in a bit of organic, unsalted butter, along with a pinch of fine fleur de sel and a little squeeze of lemon. Simple and unfussy.
Every good cook, from Fanny Farmer to Escoffier, agrees on three things about these delicate messengers to our palates from the kind earth mother: they must be very green, they must be freshly gathered, and they must be shelled at the very last second of the very last minute.”
So wrote the iconic American food writer, M.F.K. Fisher. Quite unwittingly, I had met all three criteria for perfect peas. Now, taste would tell.
The flash-cooked peas transferred to a wide-rimmed soup bowl, I carried my modest meal outdoors onto the deck and sat at the small bistro table. The sky over the valley was approaching the golden hour, when the light turns the oak-studded hills into a vibrant scene that, if someone added some old stone buildings, reminds oddly of Tuscany. I never tire of sitting there. On my visits to Carmel, I’ve spent peaceful hours on that deck simply watching the drifting clouds, the soaring hawks, the vividly zooming hummingbirds, while listening to the wind softly rustle in the trees with a voice of the timeless.
A worn linen napkin in my lap, I took another sip of the nicely crafted Oregon wine and turned my attention to my meal: petits pois au beurre. Honestly, even as a fairly accomplished cook, I was not in the least prepared for the surprise that awaited my taste buds. The peas were warm and just cooked through, tender but still toothy. They were sweet in an appealingly green way, with just the right hint of salt and acidity from the lemon, all lightly bathed in fragrant butter…
“Oh my god,” I said aloud to no one but the trees, birds, and evening breeze that flirted with my unruly hair. (It was the same thing I would utter a week later when I stepped onto the street in Cannes with the crusty artisan baguette and tasted the end of it, a very different sort of taste experience but also heavenly.)
How cliché to say that each bite of peas was a revelation but, honestly, it was. Those spanking fresh little jewels were divinely, insanely good. I sat and ate them unhurriedly with a wide spoon, chewing slowly, marveling at the superb taste and feeling a soft opening of my belly in a somatic response akin to joy.
Peas are fantastic.
Lingering in a state of gustatory bliss, I wondered, what could possibly come after that? There was only one possible answer—the organic strawberries purchased the day previous at the farmer’s market in Carmel-by-the-Sea.
I’d eaten half the basket of medium-sized, fragrant berries upon arriving home with them, but the remainder still sat in the fridge. I stood and cleared my empty bowl from the table, walked back inside the cottage where I placed the chilled strawberries in a small decorative dish, and then returned to the deck. I’ll let them warm a bit, I thought, but as I sat enjoying the slow arrival of the painted dusk, I couldn’t resist. I ate the cool red berries one by one, relishing the explosively ripe (if a bit too chilled) flavors of springtime in California.
It was the simplest of meals and yet utterly satisfying. It could only have been better if I’d had someone to share it with—though then we’d probably have to have had something besides merely peas. Sitting on the deck, gazing out on the evening mood of the rural valley, noting that the recently green hills were rapidly fading to summer brown, I savored the feeling of total wellbeing in body and soul, all my senses fed and heart open wide.
Gentle reader, you know that I’m repeatedly asking, what nourishes the soul? Certainly good, fresh food constitutes a part of the multifaceted answer, and when we can eat in an environment of beauty that delights the senses, so much the better. Pleasure, beauty, awareness, goodness, and gratitude all feed our core essence of self. Immeasurably so.
Soul Artists appreciate food as something more than a reductionist equation of carbohydrates, protein, fat, calories, vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients. Appealing food is a sensual affair that soothes the deep hunger of the soul for authenticity and connection—to place, to each other, to the seasons, to earth—as surely as it delights the taste buds. And when the meal is truly fresh and promotes health, we move closer to wellbeing on a deep, indescribable level.
As the Northern Hemisphere rolls fully into its season of earthly abundance, here’s hoping that you’ll find something fresh and appealing—ideally also local and organic—and consider making yourself (loved ones, too) a simple meal of purity and goodness. See if you can locate something fresher than what’s offered at the supermarket, perhaps from a farmer’s market or farm stand. (If you are blessed enough to have a garden, I salute you… and I’m coming over for dinner.) Even if it is only a basket of glistening ruby cherries, may that vitality stimulate dulled tastebuds and fill your cells with a sense of life force––the source from which true health always arises.
Life is good, especially when it’s delicious. Now imagine what it’s like to thrive. Knowing that there is nothing better for body and soul that you could do, I wonder, to what fresh, simple meal will you treat yourself (and your beloveds)?