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Try pea shoots for surprise taste of spring

At a Chinese restaurant in New York City on the first of April, my friends ordered some dishes we’ve never seen at our Chinese takeouts up here: pea shoots sautéed with garlic, and whole spinach with ginger.

My friends ordered lots of different foods that night. They were taking me and my husband out to celebrate our anniversary at one of their favorite restaurants, one that is so close to their apartment they go often. Very often. In fact, as we walked to the restaurant and our kids caught up with each other on kid stuff, my friends discussed all the dishes they might order, rattling off what seemed like every item offered.

“As you can tell, I know the menu by heart,” one friend said, listing the various meat and seafood choices on his mind.

“All I care about is pea shoots and spinach,” his wife said. “That means spring to me.”

I know what she means. This time of year, all I crave is fresh greens.

“You are going to love these,” my friend said.

The spinach arrived first, as my son and their daughter were deep into a discussion of scooter tricks. It looked like a dark green brick, the greens in straight lines in a straight-sided pile in the middle of the plate.

The spinach was steamed with fresh ginger and maybe some rice wine, and served cold. It was delicious.

Then came the pea shoots, something I had never had before, and I don’t know why. They are the young plants of peas, harvested at about 3 inches tall, long before the plants flower and produce actual peas. They tasted sort of pea-like and sort of baby-green like, and were also delicious. I hardly tasted any of the other dishes on the table because I kept helping myself to more greens.

Any fresh green is easy and quick to make. If you are sautéing with garlic, heat the oil, put in the garlic and, just as it begins to brown, add the greens, cleaned and washed. You can add a splash of soy sauce or rice vinegar, or not. You can toss in some sesame seeds or some grated ginger. You could try a splash of wine.

Cook for just a few minutes, until the greens are just starting to wilt, then take them out of the pan and serve.

And you can use almost any green — spinach or broccoli rabe, chard or kale, cabbage or bok choi.
Or pea shoots. What a great idea for people craving greens before garden season begins!

Giving it a try

I decided I had to try. I didn’t want to use commercial pea seeds, because some seeds are treated to improve shelf life. Instead, I bought a bag of dried peas meant for eating.

I soaked them overnight to improve germination, then planted them in an old Clementine box. I planted them very thickly, because I don’t need strong plants with good root systems able to support peas. This is only a couple of steps beyond spouting.

My peas aren’t up yet, but once they are it should only take two or three weeks for them to be big enough to harvest.

The same day I started by windowsill pea shoot plantation, my husband planted our peas out in the garden. They’ll all come up around the same time, but we’ll be eating pea shoots with garlic or ginger a whole lot sooner than we’ll be eating peas. Or even spinach, which is coming up in another Clementine box in the window sill and should be ready to transplant into the garden in two weeks.

Sometimes we have spinach in the garden this time of year, but that’s only if I remember to plant a late row or two in the fall. And last fall I forgot. So no greens.

Last weekend we had a friend over for dinner, and I poked around the brown garden patch, where vegetables will soon be growing, for something I could bring in to add to our supper — volunteer chard? Wild mustard greens? Baby mint?

Alas, all that was green in the garden were chives, and the only thing my friend will not eat is anything related to an onion.

I settled for mushrooms to go with dinner. From the store.

But next time she comes over, I hope to be serving pea shoots.

“In & Out of the Kitchen,” a wide-ranging column about cooking, eating and buying food, is written by Gazette staffers. You can reach us at

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