I was sitting with a group of food writers from the Northeast the other day (I would playfully call them Yankees, but as it was gently pointed out to me, they wouldn’t call me a Confederate so I should be careful with my adjectives). They asked me if there was something that we Texans eat that I was reluctant to write about and I didn’t blink before I said, “Pea salad.” (If you’re a fan, please do not take offense. Instead, bear with me. )
We didn’t often eat pea salad often in my family and for me it was always the strange-looking dish holding court next to the lime congeal at the church potluck or in the cafeteria line.
I can guarantee that you would never see it here in New York City, and, well, because it’s been out of sight, it’s also been out mind. (I know, I know—how could I forget about pea salad? I hear it all the time: I’ve lived away from Texas too long!) But when a reader requested that I post a recipe, saying, “We always eat it around Easter,” I figured it was time.
Pea salad is a Texan classic and yet it changes as much as the weather on a spring day.
Take my grandmother’s recipe: she makes hers with peas, cheddar, mayonnaise and pickles. But I also know people who make their pea salad with boiled eggs and bacon, not to mention those that make theirs with pickled onions and pimento cheese. And let’s not forget those other weighty questions: Do you go with canned Le Sueur peas, frozen or fresh? Do you shred or cube your cheese? Do you add other vegetables such as carrots or celery? And how do you feel about the inclusion of macaroni or almonds?
As you can see, pea salad is the font of much debate and deliberation. .
I decided that in order to decide how best to eat it, I’d just have to make my own.
I love peas and bacon together, so that was simple decision. And since I’m the kind of person that eats mayonnaise by the spoonful, I was definitely including that. When it came time to add cheese, however, I was flummoxed. Of course, in Texas you add yellow cheese—most typically Longhorn cheddar (unless you prefer Velveeta or American). But the combination of peas and bacon reminds me of northern Italian food, and so I thought that Parmesan shavings would be tasty.
In the end, however, tradition won out over experimentation. I realized that pea salad can be found all over the place, but it’s the yellow cheese, preferably Longhorn cheddar, that marks pea salad as Texas pea salad (that is, unless you make it with hard-boiled eggs, but I’m just confusing myself).
And while I couldn’t remember the last time I had this classic Southern side dish, when I took my first bite I was pleasantly surprised as it was soft, sweet, crunchy and spicy. It was good. I wouldn’t try to overanalyze pea salad—if you dissect its parts you’ll probably be put off of it. But when you add all the ingredients together, you have a refreshingly cool spring salad that is certain to please most everyone.
So, what do you put in your pea salad?
4 cups English peas (can be either fresh or frozen
4 pieces bacon, cooked and crumbled
1/2 small yellow onion, finely minced
1 tablespoon chopped fresh mint
2 ounces sharp cheddar, cubed
1 teaspoon white wine vinegar
1/4 cup mayonnaise
Pinch cayenne pepper
Rinse the peas (do not cook, either fresh or frozen) and then mix with the bacon, onion, mint, cheddar, white wine vinegar, mayonnaise, and cayenne. Add salt to taste. Chill for at least 4 hours before serving.
4 to 6 servings
Like all salads, this is just a guide and you can jazz this up any way you see fit, such as using ham or chicken instead of bacon, adding pimientos or jalapenos, or maybe adding a dollop of mustard to give it some tang.