Early summer crops have been delayed in many places this year, thanks to the brutal rain and cold that preceded the recent heat wave, but finally, we’re starting to see tiny tomatoes, baby figs, and the first perfectly formed pea pods bursting into life. Of course, when it comes to seasonal eating, you can argue that it’s best to keep it simple, to allow the produce to ‘speak for itself’ – but, there is little that butter, shallots, and little cubes of smokey, fatty bacon can’t make even better. And that’s where petits pois à la Française comes into its own.
The name rather gives it away: it’s a classic French dish, showcasing the best of the season’s first peas. Petits pois à la Française is a fantastic dish: bright green, salty and sweet, rich and fresh. To make it, smokey lardons are crisped in a hot pan until golden, before adding tiny tender shallots and a lot of butter. These are then folded through peas and bathed in stock, before adding the lettuce, stirring it through just until it softens, flopping onto the other ingredients.
But for all this talk of seasonal cooking, I am a pragmatist, not a purist: I’m not lucky enough to live near to an excellent green grocer, nor do we have pea tendrils triffoding their way around our garden (one day, I hope). If you don’t have access to the newest, sweetest, freshest, smallest peas, then do yourself a favour, and buy a bag of frozen petits pois. This is a dish that demands peas no bigger than pomegranate seeds, and I know that it can be hard to get your hands on those. While it’s wonderful to use freshly grown produce if you can, frozen petits pois do an excellent (whisper it: indistinguishable) job here. If you’re using frozen peas, they will take a little longer to bring to a final simmer, otherwise the recipe stands.
That said, whichever peas you use, this is a dish that was made for the summer months, and a deliciously versatile one at that. It is sufficiently complete that you could eat it alone with a spoon, but I love it with cold roast chicken, herby, garlicky porchetta, or slow roasted garlicky lamb shoulder, but it would be lovely with white fish, goat’s cheese, or alongside roasted baby potatoes, or crusty bread for soaking up all those smokey, sweet, buttery juices. If you’re fancy, I hear it goes well with roast pigeon, squab and quail, but I’d be lying if I told you I could pick a squab out of a line-up.
Mint or little fronds of dill are lovely additions, but not essential and, while distinctly un-French, a snowfall of parmesan on the dish just before serving is a delight .And of course, you can make the whole thing vegetarian by omitting the lardons or bacon and using vegetable stock rather than chicken.
Petits pois à la Française
Makes: A side dish for four
Takes: 10 minutes
Bakes: No time at all
200g lardons, or smoked streaky bacon cut into small pieces
2 banana shallots, finely chopped
300g petits pois
60ml chicken or vegetable stock, hot
1 baby gem lettuce, coarsely sliced
- Place the lardons in a dry, cold frying pan, and bring up to a medium-high heat. Cook until the lardons have turned golden, and the fat has softened.
- Reduce the temperature to low and add the butter and the chopped shallots. Cook for 5 minutes until the shallots are tender.
- Add the peas and the stock, and bring up to a simmer, before adding the lettuce, and cooking into just tender.