Choice ingredient: Emily Watkins on peas

Categories: Expert guidance

In this regular series, cooks with a connection to Borough Market explore the seasonal ingredients that give them most pleasure. This month, Emily Watkins, chef proprietor of the Kingham Plough and member of the Slow Food Chef Alliance, tells us why peas are her favourite May ingredient

Peas are the ingredient that really excite me in May. They spark anticipation of summer, because they are one of the first of the true summer vegetables that start coming in from the garden. Once the peas are here, you know it won’t be long before it’s followed by other summer vegetables.

As an ingredient, garden peas have so much to offer. I really like pea shoots—they are the head of the pea plant and people don’t use them enough. Pea shoots aren’t available in most shops and often get thrown away by people who grow peas at home, but they have such an amazing and intense flavour. It is like eating ordinary peas, but with a different texture. They make great garnishes for something like a risotto. There is just so much you can do with them.

The actual pea is also very versatile. I love them simply boiled and smothered in butter with a bit of black pepper. It sounds simple, but with a really rich butter and good quality peas, it's wonderful as a side dish and really underestimated. You can have them in salads, which people are very familiar with, but you can also have them in tempura which is a very light Japanese batter. It gives them a lovely crunch with a subtle, extra layer of flavour. We have them on the bar snacks menu and they are very popular.

Out of fashion
You can also make pea and ham soup—it’s a dish that seems to have gone out of fashion, but when it is well-made it’s amazing. You soon understand why it used to be such a favourite.

If you want to try something different with peas, one simple suggestion is to make a pea soufflé. Start by making a pea puree by blitzing peas and minted water in a food processor, until it has a fine consistency that you can pour, then chill it right down. It can then be used as the liquid element for the base of the soufflé. I have it with some nice goat’s cheese curd or with a split pea salad.

Another dish I love to make is fresh pea and mint soup, served with a crisp egg. There are lots of recipes for this around, you can probably find one in a cookbook somewhere at home. The key is to use the freshest peas and mint you can find and keep the recipe simple—you really want the pea to be the star of the show. When you’ve finished making the soup, keep it in a jug ready to pour. You can serve it either warm or cold.

Crispy covering
The ‘crisp egg’ is a poached egg that has been paneed, which means coated in breadcrumbs and fried. First poach the egg until it is cooked, then put it straight into ice cold water to stop it cooking any further and to keep the yolk soft. When it has cooled down, cover it in breadcrumbs and quickly deep fry it to give it a nice crispy covering, but not enough to cook the yolk inside. Place the egg on top of a pea garnish at the bottom of a bowl and pour your soup over the top.

When you break open the egg, the soft yolk will run into the soup. It's absolutely lovely, and the breadcrumbs give it a nice texture—it’s great as it is, but it’s even nicer if you scatter some crispy fried bacon onto it.

May is a great month for produce all round. As soon as they're available, we will be picking up fresh tomatoes from the local farm—again, a real sign of summer. There will be broad beans, courgettes, chicory, radishes, new potatoes, watercress, wild garlic. Then there is seafood like lemon sole, dover sole, sea bass, sea trout and crab. It is just such a lovely time in the kitchen. You see the arrival of so many wonderful ingredients.