Where have I been these long months? It would be accurate to say I was busy, off on research. After a long day of interviews, without a kitchen to cook in, more apt to eat out than in. And that would be true enough. But, I have a dark secret. Something else has been keeping me away from creative pursuits in the garden, kitchen, and online. A quick fix, a simple pleasure: gardening phone games.
I managed to avoid the Farmville bonanza that took many a Facebook friend by storm a few years ago. The addiction I saw broadcast in my news feed warned me against trying my luck in the digital fields. But this past December, after becoming attached to my phone for a solid week because of a boulder game (in hindsight, it wasn’t that fun), I was in the market for another game. When a gardening game put on a holiday theme, it was promoted in the app store, and before long, I was hooked.
And there went the last 4 months of my life.
I exaggerate, of course. I largely haven’t played the game since early February, when I practically beat it. And in my defense, there were no gardens for me to tend in the winter or on the road. Cooking out of other people’s apartments proved difficult. So I’ll forgive myself for my transgressions into digital farming.
The addiction is quite simple to understand. It’s the quick turnaround that really hooks you: the dream that plants could grow in mere instants, before you eye. A glorious, conceit.
In practice, seeds can take weeks to sprout, particularly on a cool windowsill in early April. Once planted, gardens unfold over months from light green to ripe fruit. Still, the pleasure there is greater from the waiting.
The only thing that seems to grow almost as quickly as a digital plant, transforming before your very eyes, are pea shoots. A few days of water shock, an inch or two of soil, some sunlight -- even diffuse: that’ll do it in about a week.
A lot of the magic happens beneath the soil, as the seeds push thick, white roots every which way at an incredible speed. I forgot to take a picture, but if you try some sprouts, take my advice and plant them in a glass jar so you can see their hidden progress underneath.
We’ve been back in our own apartment for the past two weeks. By the time we arrived, I had been making a list of all the foods I’d been longing to make. Complex concoctions requiring a standing mixer or rare ingredients best found in North American stores. (Travel and you will quickly discover many items you consider staples are simply not available in other countries’ grocery aisles.)
But since we’ve been back, with spring peeking in day by day, the thing I most want to eat doesn’t require much fussing at all. It’s simple, with a rotating cast of ingredients, and just a bowl and fork needed for mixing: mashed peas with ricotta on toast.
Where this idea came from, I can't surely tell you. It's one part seasonal obsession, another part simplicity. It was also the best meal I ate last June in France. A humble offering of bread, peas, ricotta and a few choice herbs -- served as a main in a restaurant in Grenoble. Brilliant.
That, and Pollan's Cooked has me obsessed with toasting things. I have always adored toast, but a passage in the book told me why. It turns out when you heat things up at a high temperature, the proteins and amino acids bend and break into thousands of other molecules. This is why caramelized things taste so delicious: they're complex and unique. Toast is surely the fastest route to such a trick.
So with fresh pea shoots at hand, and a lack of familiarity in my own kitchen, I've been eating a lot of peas on toast. I’ve had it three times since being back, each time a little different than the last. It's simple fare that can be dressed up or down or even sideways, depending on what's in your pantry or fridge, or even sprouting on your windowsill.
And it's a lot more satisfying to grow yourself some sprouts and eat them, than playing a silly phone game. I'll take an obsession with toast over an obsession with pixelated bread on a screen. With spring coming, it's time for me to get back to gardening -- for real this time.
Peas and Ricotta on Toast
A bunch of peas, shelled. Ideally fresh, but can be frozen too.
About half a container of ricotta
A few slices of good bread
Leeks or chives
1 lemon zested + a squeeze of two of the lemon juice
Mint or basil or pea shoots
Salt + pepper
1. Toast your bread.
2. Boil your peas to cook, but only briefly, until they're a little brighter and have softened. Fresh likely need 5 minutes or less. If you're using frozen, they need just a couple minutes.
3. Drain the peas and cool them down under some running water. Tamar Adler would tell you to save that cooking liquid for your impending stock. So, you could do that. Or you could just strain the peas.
4. If you're using leeks, sauté them in some butter or olive oil. Butter is surely more delicious. You want them to be browned. Also, you can use the green tops of leeks - my American friends seem to think you can't, but I assure you, you can. They're like the green tops of scallions. Just cook them longer if you're worried that they're tough.
5. Zest your lemon, chop up your herbs of choice -- roughly, grate your parmesan. You can put all this on top of your peas. Mash the peas with a fork or if you are blessed enough to have one, a potato smasher. The idea is to smash the peas a bit, but don't overdo it: use your good judgement. Add the ricotta, as much as you like, and some olive oil. Taste liberally! Add the salt and pepper. Add those leeks if you're using them. Squeeze in your lemon squeezes and taste some more. Adjust accordingly. If you want to go dairy free, then do that! This is delicious with or without the cheese.
6. Now you have a big delicious bowl of the stuff. Put it on top of the toast and garnish however you like. I put some sprouts, some salt or some parmesan on top. Eat! Leftovers work as a side if you've run out of toast.