Many people adore snap peas but I’m lukewarm about them. I associate them with commercially packaged crudite packages filled with raw broccoli and cauliflower florets, and unreal capsule-shape carrots, all surrounding a tub of dressing/dip. Then there were 1990s, when I ‘discovered’ snap peas and cooked them whole on high heat, thinking I’d replicate the glamorous dishes found at restaurants and in magazine photos. I was consistently disappointed by the slippery green pods that were cute but hard to chase around the plate, especially with chopsticks.
A couple of weeks ago, I had a snap pea turnaround at La Posta, a nice Cal-Italian restaurant in Santa Cruz. We ordered a side (contorni) of snap peas and squash with lovage (an herb) and ricotta salata (dryish, lightly salted ricotta). It sounded unusual and it tasted surprisingly good, mostly because of the way the snap peas were cut (into small pieces) and cooked (seared on high heat till they got some color). It wasn’t the most beautiful dish because the snap peas were an olive green, but the cooking method turned the snap pea into a serious vegetable, one with complexity that went beyond its mere snappiness.
I started buying snap peas from the farmer’s market and putting my own Asian twists on the dish. Instead of patty pan squash like the restaurant used, I opted for Chinese eggplant. The first time around, I used Indian curry leaf and feta (a stand in for paneer) to season the vegetables.
For the second round, I used white fermented tofu (fu ru, a creamy, cheese-like tofu sold in jars at Chinese and Vietnamese markets) for a dairy-less approach. I finished the dish with homegrown rice paddy herb (rau om). My husband like the feta and I liked the fermented tofu but the rice paddy herb was a little overwhelming. You could definitely vary the cheese, maybe a blue cheese.
For the fermented tofu, I used stuff made with chile but you can buy fu ru (chao trang) made without chile. Taiwanese makers offer a mild-sweet one with soybeans in thejar too. For DIYers, you can make your own fermented white tofu from the recipe in Asian Tofu, or try a bit of the Japanese kind called tofu misozuke.
I think you get the picture. This is a great way to use two vegetables that are in season right now.
Seared Snap Peas and Chinese Eggplant
Yields: 2 side dish servings
- 1 small Chinese eggplant, about 4 ounces (120 g)
- 8 ounces (225 g) snap peas
- 1 1/2 tablespoons canola or grapeseed oil
- 1 tablespoon mashed fermented tofu or 1 1/2 tablespoons crumbled feta cheese
- 1 tablespoon chopped fresh herbs, such as rice paddy herb (rau om), Thai basil, Vietnamese coriander (rau ram)
- Stem, halve, then quarter the eggplant. Cut each quarter on the diagonal into 3/4-inch (2 cm) wide pieces. Put in a bowl, then toss with 2 or 3 pinches of salt and sugar. Set aside to draw out moisture, about 10 minutes.
- Meanwhile, pull off the strings from the ends of the snap peas. Cut each on the diagonal into 2 or 3 pieces. Set aside.
- When the eggplant looks wet and has softened, rinse it, then drain. By the handful, gently squeeze to expel some moisture. Put back into the bowl (wipe it dry first), then toss in 1 1/2 teaspoon oil.
- Heat a medium skillet over medium-high heat. Cook the eggplant, stirring or shaking the skillet often to sear and evenly cook. After about 3 minutes, the pieces should have browned a little and softened. Transfer to a plate.
- Lower the heat slightly, add the remaining 1 tablespoon oil. Add the snap peas and cook for about 3 minutes, stirring or shaking often, until seared with some browning. Add back the eggplant, stir to combine and after things have warmed, stir in the tofu (or cheese). Turn off the heat and gently stir to combine and coat well. Stir in the herb, transfer to a plate, and serve.