Last year was a bad year for peas in Simsbury. There was too much rain and the peas did nothing. Maybe I got one meal out of them. As the snow fell in January, Priscilla and I sat by the fire with a cup of tea and a basket full of seed catalogs. We browsed through the seed write-ups, dreaming about next year’s garden. We tried to imagine which peas, peppers, brussels sprouts, lettuces, or onions would do well in our Connecticut soil. We strategized on how to rotate our crops this year to defy the squash borers or the cabbage moths without using poison. We tried to guess how much of each vegetable our family would want to eat in 2010. Priscilla lives five minutes away and like me she has an organic garden. She spends every available moment during the school year and all summer amidst her tomatoes, raspberries, blueberries and her 1000 heads of garlic. She and I often plant different vegetables or different varieties and then share our harvests.
No matter how we try to plan and prepare, we never know how it will all work out. Anyone who actually thinks they have a leg up on Mother Nature is in serious denial. Last year’s peas were a no go for either one of us. But this year the vines – both snow and sugar snap – are spectacular. They’re strong and healthy with their fanciful, curling tendrils supporting bunches of crisp, sweet, shockingly green peas.
The snow peas were in a perfect state to pick last Thursday night when I stole up to the garden to have a peek. They were big enough to have a satisfying crunch, yet small enough to be sweet and tender. I was leaving for a wedding in Philadelphia Friday at noon. Dilemma. Could I cook them? Could I eat them? I knew I could not ignore them; they were too provocative, too beautiful.
“I’ll make an early lunch. It won’t be too much of a push and we can enjoy them before we hit the road,” I mused. I felt at peace. I took my gathering basket and picked three cups of gorgeous pea pods. I decided to honor them in the best way I know how to honor a pea. I would make Matar Paneer, the North Indian dish made with paneer (homemade cheese), onions, tomatoes, and of course, peas.
In a rare moment it was 8pm and the house was totally quiet. The silence was sensual, enveloping, soft and pregnant with possibility; nothing to disturb my focus or creativity. I imagined my Matar Paneer and what I would need. In my mind I could see the pea pods, floating in their savory sauce of onions and tomatoes alongside those golden cubes of paneer, all sizzling gently in the pan. I checked the pantry: milk and limes for the paneer – yes; tomatoes – yes; fresh ginger – yes; and a special plus, Anjuli’s garam masala.
Anjuli is in Portland now. Before she left Connecticut she made garam masala while I was away traveling in Peru. It touched me to come home and find her ground and roasted spices smelling sweet and fresh and a little astringent all at the same time. I breathed them in, thinking of the matar paneer and how she would have loved to have picked those peas. I felt as if she were there cooking with me.
I washed, stemmed and strung the glistening, emerald-green peas. I got out a big pot, put a little water in the bottom to prevent the milk from burning, poured in half a gallon of whole milk and put in on to boil, thinking about how it would magically separate when I added the lime juice. After it separated into paneer and whey I strung it up in cheese cloth and set the cheese over a bowl to catch the whey. And after it drained I put the paneer, peas, and whey in the fridge in anticipation of making the dish Friday morning. With half the work already done, I felt I could pack in peace and cook the following morning without feeling rushed. I can’t always get it together to celebrate life with gusto. When I can, I always feel proud that I have been able to honor life the way I feel it deserves, just as I honored my peas. -Weezie
1/4 cup water
1/2 gallon whole milk
Juice of 1 – 2 limes
Boil the milk. Pour water into a large pot. Add the milk. Bring to a boil over medium low, about 10 minutes. Stir occasionally to prevent sticking.
Separate curds from whey. Once it comes to a boil, add the juice of 1 lime. Stir. If the milk does not completely separate, add the juice of 1/2 of the second lime. Stir. If it does not completely separate into light green whey and curds, add the juice of remaining 1/2 lime. You need enough lime juice to split the milk, but not more or it will taste too much of lime.
Matar Paneer Serves 6
Fresh peas or pea pods will be infinitely better than frozen for this dish. Their crunch and sweetness in contrast to the rich, savory paneer is the highlight of Matar Paneer.
4 tablespoons ghee
1 teaspoon fennel seed
Paneer from 1/2 gallon whole milk
1 Vidalia onion, 1/4 inch dice
1 1/2 tablespoons fresh ginger, grated
2 medium tomatoes, 1/2 inch dice
2 teaspoons ground roasted coriander seed
20 grinds of black pepper (or to taste)
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 cup reserved whey
1 teaspoon turmeric
3 cups of fresh shelled peas or pea pods, or frozen peas
2 teaspoons of Anjuli’s garam masala (recipe below)
2 tablespoons fresh coriander, minced
Note: If using pea pods, you must remove the stems and string them.
Assemble the dish. Add the whey and turmeric and stir until well combined. Pour into the frying pan. Add the peas or pea pods and garam masala. Let simmer until the peas are tender but still have some crunch. Add the fresh coriander.
Serve. This can be served with fresh chapattis or basmati rice, white or brown. Enjoy!
Anjuli’s garam masala
1/4 cup coriander seed
1/4 cup cumin seed
1/4 cup fennel seed
1 tablespoon chipotle
All the spices should be dry roasted in a frying pan on medium low until aromatic and then finely ground. We use a coffee mill that is designated for spices.