You can always hear it in chef Jeremy Fox‘s voice when he gets going on the subject of spring. His pace quickens in anticipation of winter root vegetables giving way to tender, young stalks of asparagus, English peas and artichokes. It’s a time of year when menus become fresher and simpler, and dishes depend less on the heavier sauces and seasonings that carry us through the colder months.
To mark the occasion, Fox has published his long-awaited cookbook, “On Vegetables.” The book is a heartfelt love letter to legumes that unfolds in a series of recipes. Fox recalls his early days staging in restaurant kitchens before rising up through the ranks to chef de cuisine at Manresa in Los Gatos, and the legendary (and now closed) Ubuntu in Napa.
It was 2007 when Fox put Ubuntu on the map, championing vegetable-focused “seed-to-stalk” cooking long before the practice of eliminating food waste was trendy. Chefs and critics alike flocked to Northern California to experience Fox’s hyper-seasonal assemblages of ingredients picked fresh from the restaurant-slash-yoga studio’s garden. Dishes like this recipe for spring peas with white chocolate and macadamia nuts still hold a special place for those who were lucky enough to have made the pilgrimage to wine country. Fox’s menu at Rustic Canyon in Santa Monica, where he is currently chef de cuisine, may be less complicated than his Ubuntu days, but it still showcases Fox’s knack for turning vegetables into true expressions of seasonal flavor. And that can only be a good thing.
SPRING PEAS, WHITE CHOCOLATE AND MACADAMIA NUTS
Larger peas tend to be starchy, so look for small to medium-sized ones. When preparing your peas, Fox says to blanch them just long enough to remove any raw flavor; they should be tender but still “pop like caviar.” Remember to save your shucked pods to make Fox’s Pea Shell Stock (recipe follows).
Yield: Makes 6 servings
2 pounds fresh peas, shucked (about 4½ pounds if still in pods)
2 tbsps extra-virgin olive oil, plus more as needed
2 tsps fresh lemon juice
¾ cup Pea Shell Stock, chilled (recipe follows)
1 tbsp champagne vinegar
3 tbsps white chocolate, finely chopped
3 tbsps macadamia nuts, chopped and toasted
Fresh chocolate mint or spearmint leaves, to garnish
Fresh pea tendrils and blossoms, to garnish
Kosher salt, to taste
Cook the peas: Bring a pot of water to a boil over medium-high heat. Add enough salt to make a salty brine. (Fox says it should taste “like the sea.) Meanwhile, prepare an ice bath in a large bowl.
Add the shucked peas to the boiling water and blanch them until they become tender, but not too soft, about 2 minutes. Drain the peas and immediately transfer them to an ice bath until completely cool. Drain the peas and transfer them to a tea towel to dry.
Season the peas: Gently squeeze each pea to remove the two halves from inside the membrane and transfer them to a nonreactive bowl. (You can save the outer skins for another use, if you’d like.) Season the pea halves with the olive oil, lemon juice and salt, to taste.
Season the stock: In a separate bowl, combine the chilled Pea Shell Stock with the champagne vinegar and season with salt, to taste.
To serve: Divide the cooked peas across 6 bowls. Sprinkle the peas with the chopped white chocolate and macadamia nuts. Then garnish with the mint leaves, pea tendrils and blossoms. Before serving the peas, pour the seasoned Pea Shell Stock into the bowls, tableside, and dot the surface of the liquid with olive oil from a squeeze bottle.
PEA SHELL STOCK
This is a gently cooked stock made with shucked pea pods, garlic and fresh spearmint. Fox says it works well as a base for many other vegetable dishes.
Yield: Makes 1 quart of stock
1 pound fresh pea pods, shucked (about 2 pounds of whole pods)
1 garlic clove, smashed and germ removed
1 shallot, sliced
2 sprigs fresh spearmint
Place the shucked pea pods, spearmint sprigs, garlic and shallot in the center of your cheesecloth. Gather the corners together and tie the cloth together using twine to form a sachet.
Lower your sachet into 1 quart of water in a pot set over low heat. Be sure to watch your stock to make sure that it doesn’t bubble; otherwise the pea pods will discolor your stock. You only want to steep the sachet to create a clear broth.
After 2 hours, lift the sachet from the stock, allowing any liquid to drain back into the pot. Discard.
To store: Transfer the stock to an airtight container with a lid once it has cooled. Cover and refrigerate for up to 2 days. The stock will also keep in the freezer for up to 2 months.
All photos by Rick Poon.