Richard Olney’s Fresh Peas + Lettuce

Most people recoil at the thought of cooking lettuce, but I happen to love the mild flavor and slippery texture of lettuce wilted into soups, stews, or into rice. So you can imagine that we were particularly pleased to come upon this recipe of fresh spring peas with lettuce from Richard Olney’s inestimable volume The French Menu Cookbook.

Freshly shelled peas are massaged with soft butter, salt, and pepper, and spooned gently into a pot lined with slips of torn Bibb lettuce. The peas steam in the water droplets still clinging to the lettuce, and are bathed in a buttery, thyme-scented broth. What’s presented here is my casual adaptation of Olney’s creation, and what I love most is that this simple recipe produces the most unique results – tender summer peas infused with the flavors of butter, thyme, and Bibb lettuce.

Isn’t shelling peas strangely soothing? I actually love it.

The sensation of plucking out those tiny peas is similar to popping zits. So, so satisfying.

Line your pot with lettuce leaves. See those water droplets? Essential for steaming, so don’t be too fastidious about drying the lettuce.

Stuff that bundle of thyme into the lettuce core.

The core gets placed into the middle of the pot, and the butter-rubbed peas are spooned on top of the lettuce. Don’t you already want to eat it?

The rest of the lettuce leaves are layered over the peas, nice and cozy.

After 45 minutes, this is what you get. A bowl of silky, buttery peas, steamed in the essence of lettuce and thyme.

We savored every bite. Make this immediately!

Fresh spring peas in lettuce

(Note: Because this recipe is so simple, ingredients of the highest quality are of paramount importance. Don’t even think about replacing freshly shelled peas with its frozen brethren! Also, Olney recommends using an enameled cast-iron pot with a very snug lid. We used our beloved Le Creuset number. And finally, don’t discard the cooked lettuce afterward! We used ours to flavor a basic vegetable stock. I also snuck a couple of cold bites of lettuce with some steak the next night.)

2 cups freshly shelled peas

1/2 head Bibb lettuce, washed and torn into big pieces

small bundle of fresh twine, tied together with string

1/2 stick butter, room temperature

salt + pepper

1. In a cast-iron pot, line the bottom and sides of pan with torn sheets of Bibb lettuce, overlapping the pieces in a fan. 

2. Gently pry open the core of the lettuce head and place the bundle of thyme within.

3. Shell peas and set aside. (Olney here is particularly fussy about finding small peas of identical size and shape, insisting that the larger specimens are too starchy for this delicate dish. I say, screw it. It was still delicious.)

4. In a small dish, mash butter with generous amounts of salt and pepper, forming a smooth paste.

5. Gently rub salted butter into the peas, and spoon into the lettuce-lined pot.

6. Place final layer of lettuce leaves snugly over the peas, as if tucking them into bed. Really lay them on!

7. Over high heat, saute lettuce and peas for one minute, just to get the pot warm.

8. Turn the burn to the lowest possible setting and gently simmer for 45 minutes. That’s right, forty-five minutes. I realize that this sounds like a ludicrous amount of time, but I promise that it’s just the right length to unleash some serious magic.

9. 20 minutes into the steam, gently open pan to check on peas, and give a nice shake. There should be plenty of liquid in there.

10. After another 20 minutes, open and carefully spoon peas into bowl, and discard (or save for future use) the lettuce and thyme. Serve immediately with a glass of white Burgundy.

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4 responses to “Richard Olney’s Fresh Peas + Lettuce

  1. love the zit reference… this looks so delicious!

  2. you had me at popping zits.

    this looks amazing!

  3. This sounds like a recipe I need to try soon! I agree with Ashley and Katie, the popping zits reference was awesome. Hmmm…I might use that to try to rope my sister into helping me with shelling some peas.

  4. thanks all! this is one of those incredible “why didn’t i think of that?” recipes — it’s why i love richard olney, he’s such a weirdo when it comes to food.

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