Peas, please: In-season recipes from our favorite vegetable-forward cookbook

Mackensy Lunsford
Southern Kitchen

If you're a gardener, chances are you've wondered what to do with a windfall from some overachiever of a plant. Whether it's tomatoes in the summer or squash in the fall, Rick Rodgers' "Big Book of Sides" can help you decide what to do with too much of just about any ingredient.

The book's 450 recipes make it easy to find ideas if you've overzealously loaded up on your favorite vegetable at the farmers' market. This time of year peas, an especially ephemeral spring vegetable, catch my eye. The problem with hoarding fresh peas is that you shouldn't. They only keep for a few days. 

But if you, like me, have peas in the garden and still won't be able to pass up a bag at the tailgate market, try these three recipes, and their variations. They're courtesy of "Big Book of Sides," published by Ballantine Books.

Rigatoni with Peas and Bacon

Try also: Rigatoni with peas and bacon

Shrimp Clemenceau

Seared salmon with sugar snap peas

Buttered fresh peas with lettuce

Serves: 4

This is the French way of gently cooking fresh peas in lettuce leaves with the sweet flavors of the two vegetables mixing together. Made with fresh local peas in season, this is one of the very best early summer side dishes, but you can use the same recipe to dress up frozen peas too. You won't need herbs if the peas are topnotch, although a sprinkle of fresh tarragon would be nice. This is the recipe to use as the beginning of peas and baby onions, a side dish classic (recipe follows).

Ingredients

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

1 head Bibb or Boston lettuces, separated into individual layers

2 cups shelled fresh peas (11 ounces; from 2 pounds peas in a pod)

Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper

1/2 cup reduced-sodium chicken broth

Instructions

Melt 1 tablespoon of the butter in a medium saucepan over low heat, Place half of the lettuce leaves in the saucepan. Add the peas and season with a light sprinkle of salt and pepper. Top with the remaining lettuce leaves, pour in the broth, and season with another sprinkle of salt and pepper. Cut the remaining 1 tablespoon of butter into small cubes and scatter them over the lettuce.

Bring the liquid to a simmer over medium heat. Reduce the heat to medium-low and cover. Simmer until the peas are tender 10-12 minutes. 

Using a slotted spoon, transfer the peas and lettuce to a serving bowl and tent with aluminum foil to keep warm. Bring the liquid in the pan to a boil over high heat and boil until reduced by half, about 2 minutes. Pour the broth over the peas and lettuce. Season to taste with salt and pepper and serve. 

Peas and lettuce with baby onions: After reducing the broth in step 3, add 1 cup thawed frozen baby onions and 2 tablespoons water, cover and cook just until the onions are heated through, about 3 minutes. Pour the onions and the broth over the peas and lettuce. Makes 6 servings.

Piselli e Prosciutto

In this Italian dish, fresh peas and prosciutto exchange flavors to make a fine dish to serve with roasts and chops. You can easily substitute thawed, frozen peas, but cook them with the prosciutto for only 5 minutes.

Serves: 4

Ingredients

1/4 cup diced (1/4-inch) prosciutto

2 teaspoons olive oil

1/3 cup finely chopped white or yellow onion

1 1/2 cups shelled fresh peas (7 1/2 ounces; from about 1 1/2 peas in the pod

1/2 cup reduced-sodium chicken broth

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper 

Instructions

Cook the prosciutto and oil together in a medium skillet over medium heat, stirring occasionally until the prosciutto begins to brown, about 3 minutes. Stir in the onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until it softens, about 2 minutes.

Add the peas and broth and bring to a simmer. Reduce the heat to medium-low and cover tightly. Simmer, stirring occasionally, until the peas are tender and most of the broth has reduced, 7-10 minutes, Season to taste with salt and pepper. Transfer to a serving bowl and serve.

Peas and bacon: Substitute 2 strips bacon, coarsely chopped, for the prosciutto, and cook, stirring occasionally until crisp and browned, around 8 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the bacon to paper towels to drain. Add the peas to the bacon fat in the skillet and cook as directed. Stir the bacon into the cooked peas.

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Orzo with lemon, parmesan and peas

Orzo is one of the most versatile in the entire pasta family — and that's saying a mouthful. I turn to this citrusy side dish time and time again to serve with salmon or shrimp. As the butter melts with the Parmesan, it forms a lovely sauce.

Serves: 4

Ingredients

1 cup orzo

1/2 cup thawed frozen peas

1 tablespoon unsalted butter

1/3 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese (about 1 1/2 ounces)

Grated zest of half a lemon

2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

Instructions

Bring a medium saucepan of lightly salted water to a boil over high heat. Add the orzo and cook according to the package directions, stirring occasionally, until it is barely tender. Drain the orzo well and return it to the pot.

Add the peas and butter and cook, stirring constantly over low heat, until the peas are heated through, about 1 minute. (Southern Kitchen note: if you're using fresh peas, blanch them until just tender first.) Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the Parmesan, lemon zest and juice. Season to taste with salt and pepper. 

Transfer the mixture to a serving bowl and serve hot. 

More spring flavor:Dreaming of spring? Try these 3 fresh, green asparagus recipes this weekend

Healthy Southern comfort:8 of Southern Kitchen's best recipes for healthier Southern comfort food

More sides:How to make creamy, standout grits just like the chefs at Husk Nashville

Mackensy Lunsford is the food and culture storyteller for USA TODAY Network's South region and the editor of Southern Kitchen.

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Reach me: mlunsford@southernkitchen.com