These canned monstrosities—which bore very little resemblance to the real thing—became my standard for how peas looked and tasted. That was particularly unfortunate because my grandparents grew English peas in their enormous garden and one of my grandma's signature dishes was a potato and pea salad. I have fond memories of sitting at their picnic table shelling peas for dinner, and I would have noticed that these peas were brighter and firmer than the ones that made me shudder. But there was no way I was going to eat that salad. I knew peas, and peas were not my friends.
So peas and I have been at a stand-off for most of my life. I may grudgingly include one or two on a forkful of spring vegetable risotto or let the spiciness of a vegetable biryani mask their taste. But in general they will end up shoved to the side of my plate by the end of a meal.
A few weeks ago, however, I was inspired to give peas a chance. I had called up Carla Hall, Top Chef season five finalist and Washington-area caterer, to get her advice about overcoming food aversions. Hall said it's important to figure out why you don't like a certain food in order to determine whether you can change your taste for it. "I think a lot of our dislikes—and this is why I try to revisit a lot of the foods I disliked as a child—have to do with who made them for us and how they prepared it," she explained.
Liver is one of those foods for Hall. "With liver, I know it's the texture I don't like. Maybe if someone used molecular gastronomy and made it crispy, I might like it," she suggested. "Or if they combined it with flavors I know I like." What Hall does love to eat are peas. Loves them. She's a pea proselytizer. And she swore that she could win me over with her pea pesto, which she uses as a spread inside grilled cheese sandwiches.
Now there was an idea. It was intimidating to think about plunging directly into a bowl of peas. But maybe I could gently reintroduce myself to peas by using dishes I already enjoy. I love grilled cheese—who doesn't?—and it could be the perfect gateway food.
It might also help to get as far away from the world of nasty canned vegetables as possible. On a weekend trip to central Virginia, I stopped at a local farm and purchased a big bag of freshly-picked spring peas. I also picked up some ears of corn for a creamy soup—because you can't have grilled cheese sandwiches without soup—and the first strawberries of the season for a strawberry-rose sorbet that would round out the meal.
Once home I spent an hour shelling the peas, enjoying the rhythm of the ritual and the absence of goo. I quickly blanched the peas and plunged them into ice water, admiring their bright green color. With a handful of mint from my back porch, a little garlic, toasted pine nuts, olive oil, and some good Parmigiano-Reggiano, I soon had a pea pesto. Add some fresh ciabatta and nutty Manchego, and it's time for grilled cheese!