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Garlic & greens recipe

Early season pea shoots provide a flavorful intro to summer

Ari Levaux
Garlic & greens recipe
You might need to look for pea shoots at the farmers market. Photo: Ari LeVaux

Garlic with pea shoots is a combination worth exploring. It’s hardly a secret, especially in Asia where pea greens are widely consumed. In many regions, peas are sown throughout the summer specifically for their greens, every week or so like American farmers plant lettuce. A simple, heaping pile of pea greens in brown sauce is one of my favorite Chinese foods.

The culinary deconstructionists in the Cook’s Illustrated test kitchen, meanwhile, have broken down the savory nature of pea greens into “grassy,” “slightly bitter” and “tastes like peas but not sweet.” They conclude this flavor is maximized in a pan with nothing more than garlic, salt and fat, and I have seen no evidence to the contrary. 

Unless your local store has an extra-special produce section, you’ll only find pea shoots at the farmers market, or in your backyard. Before you harvest from your own pea patch, consider the trade-off between a mouthful of greenery today and a handful of peas tomorrow. The peas you already have in the ground, climbing their way up the trellis and probably showing some pale yellow flowers, perhaps dangling some little peas that your kids are waiting patiently to eat? You’d better let those gangly climbers live.

But if they need to be thinned, eat the ones you pull. And you can always trim the shoots for a quick snack. The last 6 inches of a 3-foot plant are heavenly, and a little trim here and there won’t stop progress. Pruned plants will continue growing undaunted, sometimes with more vigor in response to the insult. 

Elsewhere in the garden, the appearance of garlic flowers, aka scapes, marks the New Year according to the garlic calendar. After months of eating soft, sprouting garlic cloves, we can eat new garlic. The plant is alive and juicy and the flavor is sharp and spicy. Scapes are the first taste of the season’s new garlic crop.

Scapes, like pea greens, are curly. Each garlic flower wants to go around twice before uncurling and standing up, eventually opening into a purple flower that looks like a celestial explosion.

China Train Pea Greens

  • 1 bunch pea greens, chopped or left whole
  • 1 handful garlic scapes, chopped into inch-long sections
  • 1-2 tablespoons butter
  • 1-2 tablespoons olive oil
  • Black pepper, salt, garlic powder, to taste
  •  Bacon (optional, sort of); I keep my bacon frozen and cut it lengthwise off of one end, like slicing a sausage but through the ends of several pieces of frozen bacon at once. Most heavy knives have no problem because the fat prevents bacon from freezing rock-hard. It doesn’t take a lot of these little bacon bits, sometimes called lardons, to make a difference in a meal. Use a slice of bacon’s worth of lardons for this dish.

For the Train Sauce:

  • 4 tablespoons soy sauce
  • 4 tablespoons oyster sauce
  • 2 teaspoons fish sauce
  • 2 teaspoons sesame oil
  • 3 tablespoons lime juice

Make the sauce by stirring together the ingredients. Cook the lardons (if using) patiently, until they are crispy, then remove from pan. Add the oil, butter and scapes, turn the pan to medium, and wait for the glorious fragrance of fresh garlic to fill the room.

Add the pea sprouts; spread them around so they are evenly distributed, and wait until they flatten down, about 30 seconds. While still bright green, turn the pan to high and add the sauce. Bring to a boil and let the sauce boil 30 seconds, then stir it around and turn it off.

Serve with the carbohydrate of your choice, or unadulterated in all of its savory, tangy, green garlicky glory.

greens, pea, recipe