It was a meal of utmost simplicity. Purity, even.
My partner had just departed for Europe, going on a few days ahead of me, while I lingered 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 my rented writing retreat, I decided to pull over at a roadside organic farm stand, one that I had passed multiple times before. On each of my visits to the valley, I had considered stopping to poke around a bit and see what they had on offer. Today was finally the day.
In the dusty unpaved 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 from the blooms, I was immediately hit by their sweet, intoxicating fragrance.
Marveling that I could smell the flowers from such 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 field where the two founders initially grew lettuces, from which they built an organic produce empire 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 expected offering of organic lettuces, rainbow chard, kale of different varieties, carrots, onions, celery, peppers, zucchini/courgette, etcetera, all of which looked tempting and appealingly fresh.
Browsing the refrigerated wall of produce, considering my options for supper later on, oddly what beckoned me was the farm 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 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 this vegetable is terribly popular (a matter of national pride, even), most often served as “mushy peas” (that’s actually what they call them)—generally an unappealing, lurid green, overcooked mash, 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. Having recently traveled from Hawaii, where the seasons are negligible (along with any change in fresh or semi-fresh produce), I was in the mood for some California spring cuisine: favas (broad beans), globe artichokes, strawberries… even peas. Unsure exactly what I would do with them but unable to resist their sparklingly crisp allure, I scooped up a couple of large handfuls and placed them into a paper bag.
A few hours later, having recently nibbled on some good olives and aged, raw Manchego with a glass of wine, I stood in the small kitchen of my rented hovel and contemplated supper options. Not feeling overly hungry due to the early evening snack, and having no one to cook for but myself, yet still desiring something fresh and full of spring goodness, 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 countertop speakers, a glass of Oregon Pinot Gris standing nearby, I emptied the bag of fresh pods onto the counter. All the vibrant jade crescents 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 pods opening beneath my fingers, the toothsome 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. Salad greens in a sealed bag or a plastic clamshell container at the grocery store constitutes fresh for most people; picked days or even a week (or more) ago, the majority of produce has already traveled uncountable miles. Despite that those leaves are still (hopefully) green, such food is nearly dead, for 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, Qi,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, at which I can only roll my eyes. Save me, please.
Admittedly we eat very fresh at our house, as locally sourced as I can manage—not always easy nor is there much diversity in Hawaii—which is why I love being now on the West Coast of the States. Still, I marveled at these gloriously fresh peas. They might only be trumped had 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 debated 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. 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 success. Now, taste would tell.
Transferring the flash-cooked peas to a wide-rimmed soup bowl, I carried my utterly modest meal outdoors and sat at the small bistro table on the deck. The sky above the valley approached the golden hour, when fading light transforms the oak-studded hills into a vibrant scene that, if someone added some old stone buildings, could remind oddly of Tuscany. I never tire of sitting there. Whenever ensconced at my rented retreat, I contentedly spend peaceful hours on that deck simply watching the drifting clouds, lazily soaring hawks, the vividly zooming hummingbirds, while listening to the wind rustle in the trees with a gentle voice of the timeless.
A worn linen napkin in my lap, I took another sip of the nicely crafted wine and turned attention to my meal: petits pois au beurre. Honestly, even as a fairly accomplished Paris-trained 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 little birds, gnarled oaks, and evening breeze that flirted with my unruly hair. (The same words would fly from my mouth a week later in Cannes, when I stepped onto the street with a crusty, artisan levain 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, truly, 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 my state of gustatory bliss, I wondered, what could possibly follow that? There was only one possible answer: organic strawberries purchased the day previous at the little farmer’s market in Carmel-by-the-Sea.
For the record, I don’t waste time or money on those industrial-sized, California jumbo berries, the ones grown simply for size versus taste, built to simply endure the rigors of travel. These at the market, however, were not those. Smaller, and possibly an heirloom variety. Hopefully worthwhile, they certainly smelled alluring and delicious.
Indeed, they were, and I’d eaten half the punnet upon arriving back at my writer’s shack with them, but the remainder still waited in the fridge. I stood and cleared my empty bowl from the table, walked back indoors 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 watched the slow arrival of a painted dusk, I couldn’t resist. One by one, I ate the cool red berries, relishing the explosively ripe (if a bit too chilled) flavors of springtime in California.
It was the simplest of meals and yet beyond satisfying. It could only have been better if I’d had someone to share it with—though then we would probably have wanted something besides merely peas. 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 that gently 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 fare 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 tilts fully into the axial phase 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 bowl of glistening ruby cherries, may that vitality stimulate dulled taste buds 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 is 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 the ones you love?