Crunchy Pea Salad

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I am American. Born here, bred here. But I’ve never been a big fan of American food. I just wasn’t raised on it. In fact, I can vividly remember the times I was subjected to traditional American dishes after I left home, like beanie weenies, jello salad, sweet potatoes with marshmallows, and poppy seed dressing. The list is actually very long, I just don’t want to make anyone feel like they have to defend the kind of food on which he/she was raised. I was just fed differently.

My mother was raised in France, and knew no other way to create meals for my sister and I than the local farm-to-table approach. She shopped often, harvested from the ocean, the forest, and her own garden, made everything from scratch, and nothing went to waste.

When I was growing up, my mother made croissants and éclairs. I never had a donut. She also began learning about various global cuisines when I was a tween, so dinners were everything from Chinese hot pot, to Russian coulibiac, to Ethiopian wats. I had no idea what mac and cheese was. Frozen food, fast food and coke? Never. So I truly come by my food snobbiness naturally.

Years ago I left behind a friend in California when I moved to the Midwest after getting married in 1982. Although only 10 years my senior, she had a young family that I adored, and I was often invited for dinner. Spaghetti was an involved meal for her, even though she bought the sauce in a jar, the Parmesan in the green carton, and the garlic bread in a foil wrapper. But it was wonderful. I loved being at her house with her family, which I learned quickly was way more important than the food on the table.

Jeanne actually inspired me a lot, although I didn’t really realize it back then. I was quite young, and had no immediate plans on marrying and having children, but she was a wonderful mother and unconsciously I learned from her.

One day, she served a salad called crunchy pea salad. She had gotten the recipe out of one of her Junior League cookbooks*.

I am not going to say anything about those cookbooks, with plastic bindings and recipes like Aunt Susan’s Favorite Cake and Velveeta Rotel Dip. I’ve probably already lost followers from my anti-American food comments.

But this salad was great! And really unique!!! And to this day I’ve kept the recipe, and actually made it a few times. I’ve never heard of it elsewhere, or seen it on a blog, but I suspect it’s fairly well known considering the source.

You can’t beat the ingredients: peas, bacon, cashews, celery, green onions, and sour cream, which all go together beautifully. It’s great to serve at a picnic, or garden buffet, or even a brunch.

So thank you Jeanne for this recipe and your lovely family of which I got to be a part for a short time.

Crunchy Pea Salad

1 – 16 ounce package petite peas, thawed
8 ounces diced bacon
1 cup finely chopped celery
1/4 cup sliced green onions
1 cup salted and roasted cashews
1 cup sour cream, divided
Approximately 1/3 cup vinaigrette, see below

Place the thawed peas over paper towels in a bowl and set aside.

Crisply fry the bacon bits and drain well on paper towels; set aside to cool.


Have your celery and green onions prepared and ready.

Since I didn’t have roasted and salted cashews, I actually roasted mine in the leftover bacon grease. I must say, they almost disappeared before I could put the salad together.

For the vinaigrette, I used a basic recipe as follows:

1/2 cup sherry vinegar, but apple cider will work just as well
1/2 cup olive oil
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
2 small cloves garlic
1/2 teaspoon salt

Blend everything together well. This recipe makes more than you need for the salad, so keep the leftover vinaigrette in a jar and refrigerate.

Separately, I blended 1/2 cup of sour cream along with only 1/3 cup vinaigrette for the salad. Shake it well in a jar and set aside.

To assemble the salad, remove the damp paper towels from the bowl with the peas. Add the celery and green onions.


Add the remainder 1/2 cup sour cream, and the dressing and stir gently to combine.

I placed the mixture in a serving bowl.


Normally, the bacon and the cashews would be included in the salad, but for the sake of photography, I sprinkled them both on top.

I also sprinkled some salt and coarsely ground pepper.

I served extra dressing, but even as a lover of dressings and vinaigrettes, no more is needed for this salad.

Make sure to add the cashews only at the last minute. The cashews are part of the crunch in the crunchy pea salad.

* Before you even think about writing a comment defending Junior League cookbooks of America, please know that I’ve actually been featured in one, and I’m very proud of that fact. Over the years, the cookbooks have really evolved, and now have normal bindings, gorgeous photos, and creative recipes. Below is a blurb from a write-up about me, in Cooking by the Boot Straps, published in the town where I live.

xx

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Growing Up Foodie

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With my grandmother at her home in Charmes-la-Côte, France

With my grandmother at her home in Charmes-la-Côte, France

Growing up, I lived an interesting foodie life, without realizing it. I didn’t love much of anything in the early years; it took years to cultivate my taste buds. But compared to other American youngsters, the gastronomic history of my life is fairly unique.

One reason why my upbringing was different than others born in the 50’s is that my mother is French. She came to the U.S. a couple of years before I was born, bringing with her a cultured palate, kitchen savvy, and a great knowledge of growing and harvesting.

During my early years, when we lived in Carmel, California, my mother taught French to American students for some extra money. One student rewarded her with a giant, hardback Betty Crocker cookbook. I doubt she opened it up more than once. Understandably, she didn’t have much of an appreciation for American cooking or for its measurement system. This was at a time when Americans were making some major changes in the way they prepared and presented food. This was also the beginning of the frozen dinner and fast food phase, which fortunately my mother never embraced.

Being that my mother is a bit on the stubborn side, she did not change her ways. She cooked how she was taught to cook, and how she wanted to feed us. Being that it was California, fresh produce was fortunately abundant, and my mother’s garden flourished.

I remember fresh artichokes, avocados, persimmons, and pomegranates at a young age. And I picked oranges, lemons, and kumquats right off of our trees.

Plus, Carmel had a wonderful deli called Mediterranean Market right on Ocean Avenue, and so we never lacked for various charcuterie, German sausages, and stinky cheeses.

Then we moved to north central California. Occasional day trips to San Francisco piqued my mother’s curiosity about Asian cuisines. She loved Chinatown, and would bring home Chinese candies that were gelatinous cubes wrapped in plastic. When you put them in your mouth, the plastic would dissolve! There were also pastel-colored plastic chips, that when deep fried, would bubble up similar to Cheetos, except that they were fishy. And, addicting.

But her fascination with all things Asian was why my mother got a little crazy when we moved to Seattle, Washington. Somehow she became good friends with Mrs. Chin, who had a grocery store at the famous Pike’s Place market. (I loved going to Mrs. Chin’s place because it was right next door to a German deli where I’d always get a slice of black forest cake.)

Mrs. Chin was tiny, adorably chubby, and I couldn’t understand a word she said. But she and my mother were two peas in a pod.

Soon after moving to Seattle my mother became a certified scuba diver. So she and Mrs. Chin struck up a deal. In exchange for cooking lessons, my mother supplied Mrs. Chin with sea cucumbers. They are a Chinese delicacy, so this was quite a coup for Mrs. Chin.

My mother and I both tasted one once. The texture was that of a shoe sole, but I don’t remember the flavor. Figuring as I was about ten or so, I probably spat it out and made a big fuss. But I remember that my Mom was not very fond of it, either. Here’s a picture of one on the sea floor. They’re not very attractive.

Sea_cucumber

So my mother collected these sea animals in the Puget Sound for Mrs. Chin, and took cooking lessons. Mind you, these lessons were not about stir-frying meat and vegetables and putting them all together over rice with a little soy sauce. This was intense, authentic Chinese cooking.

Mrs. Chin had published a cookbook, as well. My mother collected woks, spoons, bowls, sieves, steamers, cleavers… but then we moved again.

We left the Northwest and moved to the Northeast – Long Island, to be specific. We lived in a somewhat rural area across the bay from Cold Spring Harbor. The beach was pretty there on one end, but of course to my mother, it was an opportunity to catch fish and shellfish on the walled end of the bay. She built her own crab trap, of course.

One day, Mom came home with a giant eel. By this time I was about 13, and I was mortified just seeing it. Without thinking, my mother chopped the head off and stuck the neck of the eel in a vice grip. Mind you, it was still wiggling. I’m pretty sure it was about 6 feet long, without its head. My mother propped one foot on the counter next to the vice grip, and with pliers, proceeded to skin this monstrous thing. And, we had eel for dinner. Tasted like chicken.

During the summer months on Long Island my mother foraged the nearby river and local hills for anything edible. We called her our “Euell Gibbons,” who probably no one remembers except Americans my age or older.

My mother picked different species of mushrooms for fabulous omelets, harvested watercress from the river for salads, made shakes from wild strawberries, picked dandelions for making wine, and countless other things – some of which I’ve probably blocked from my memory. She also stirred up interesting herbal concoctions that cured everything from rashes to stomach aches.

book-gibbons

The worst experience for me, however, was when she cooked Tiger Lilies – yes, the flower. This was one of her Asian dishes. I can still remember the texture of them. To this day, I can’t look at Tiger Lilies. I won’t even plant them. And, I’ve never had a zucchini blossom as a result. I know, they’re a delicacy, but so were tiger lilies, supposedly. That’s the last weird thing my mother ever cooked. (My husband has a different story to tell!)

Interspersed throughout my formative years were times I spent in France. My food memories from there are vivid. I loved “Les Petits Suisses,” and the fabulous bread and real butter. I remember the sweetness of just picked cherries and Mirabelles and the smell of wild onions in the woods. I remember walking to the little shops with my grandmother – first buying bread, then buying cream and cheese, then buying chocolate. It was the daily ritual.

The French unpasteurized milk from back in the day also had an impact on me – it’s one of the reasons why I love canned evaporated milk – they smell exactly the same. It’s probably also why I fell in love with cafe au lait.

The first beer I ever drank was in France. (I was older then.) It was called Champigneule, or something like that. I later learned it was the Budweiser of French beer, but I had it with a crusty baguette with le jambon et beurre, while waiting for a train, and it was delicious. It was years before I drank a beer again. Needless to say I didn’t attend college keg parties. But American beer just didn’t taste the same. Just like that incredible wine that you have on a picnic, that doesn’t taste as good in your dining room a week later. Someone I knew once called this “experiential wine.” It’s not just the flavor of the wine you’re tasting, but the whole experience. That was my beer.

Speaking of wine, I also drank my first glass of wine in France. My mother never kept beer and wine from us, it’s just that no one was a big drinker in my family. I personally didn’t like the taste of anything alcoholic.

My mother used to make Baba au Rum, and Crepes Suzettes, which are incredible French desserts, but I couldn’t eat them. She also loved to make brandied fruit in her Rumtopf pot and serve it over ice cream, but that also was too strong for me.

But it was during dinner at my mother’s family home in France where I had my first glass of wine! I announced that it was very good, and my aunt got mad because I had accidentally drunk the everyday wine – le vin du maison – instead of the wine for guests. I can’t even imagine how good that must have been! I still remember the meal. There was a first course, a choice of meat and fish entrée, followed by the salad, and then the cheese platter. The meal lasted what seemed like days to me. Now I treasure leisurely meals, of course!

When I was in high school we moved west to Utah. My mother once again kicked into high gear, resurrecting her love of all things Chinese. Our kitchen smelled like an Asian grocery store, and my mother began testing all of her Chinese culinary expertise on us. Me, with my yet undeveloped palate, my sister with a more sophisticated palate but much less patience as she was older, and my step-father who wanted nothing more than to leave the table and not talk to anyone.

But what I got to experience were unforgettable dishes. Wintermelon soup, steamed buns with pork filling, whole cooked fish with vegetables, chicken in fermented black bean sauce, and so much more.

The Chinese hot pot nights were really fun, and probably the only times we all got along. My mother had a heat-proof table custom made just so we could hot pot! A hot pot is essentially an angel food cake pan over a bed of coals. The seasoned broth goes into the angel food pan, and the hole in the middle serves as the chimney for the coals. This thing got hot. Here’s a picture of one.

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My mother would put out serving platters of thinly sliced meats, fish, and seafood. There were whisked eggs, veggies, green onions, and sauces. You used special bamboo tongs to collect what you want to eat and place it in a sieve, then place the sieve in the boiling broth. You’d put what you wanted into the bowl of broth in front of you, like some egg and a sauce, then empty the sieve into your bowl. You would add more goodies, season more, eat, and do it all over again. It was like fondue, only Chinese.

During these years when I was still at home, my mother would also cook a different country’s cuisine often. She explored Indian food, Ethiopian food, even Russian food. I thought everyone ate Coulibiac and Doro Wat, and Rojan Josh.

At 17 I went off to college, and had to make my way feeding myself. It would be way easier to say that my French mother had taught me how to cook, but she really didn’t. I knew how to make crepes, I’d helped make brioche and croissants, and I knew how to clean shrimp, but that’s about all. My mother always chased us out of the kitchen while she was cooking. She needed to concentrate.

The most important thing I learned from my mother, however, is that no matter what you’re cooking, use the best, freshest, and highest-quality ingredients. My mother never ever took shortcuts. There was no onion dip powder, cake mix, fake cheese, no bottled or canned this or that. This probably explains why I have to make everything from scratch.

Once I got married, I taught myself how to cook. Without realizing it at the time, all of the years of being introduced to different foods from around the world definitely benefited me. I knew what good food tasted like, even if I hadn’t cooked it yet. And I was familiar with a lot of non-traditional ingredients.

I’m not nearly the cook my mother once was. I don’t have the patience, for one thing, and I don’t have the artistic flair. She was also a perfectionist in the kitchen. My mother would never add a tomato to a salad without first peeling it. And if I have company, I’d much rather throw something together before-hand and have fun with my guests than be in the kitchen fretting. That’s just me.

But looking back at my childhood at all of my foodie experiences, and at all of our travels, I lived quite a food-rich life. It’s no wonder I am and always will be obsessed with great food. But I must honor my mother for introducing me to all of that lovely food along the way, and for all of her hard work in the kitchen. All of my experiences growing up inspired me to be the best home cook I could be.