Vegetarian: Peas and Carrots Salad with Goat Cheese and Almonds


[Photographs: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

I've always loved peas and carrots in pretty much all their forms. Even the little compartments of frozen peas and cubically-cut carrots were the best part of my TV dinner (unless said dinner also included an apple crumble). Why do they work so well as a frozen vegetable? It's because when frozen fresh, neither peas nor carrots lose much of their sweetness or flavor, and they're both small enough that their texture is also minimally affected.

But that was then and this is now; with all the access we have to great fresh produce these days, it seems a waste not to pull off some sort of minor update on the classic duo. This salad brings them together in a brighter, fresher, altogether-more-satisfying way.

I like to think of fresh peas as the caviar of the vegetable world. Or perhaps the salmon roe. It's a textural thing. When cooked perfectly, they should have tight, smooth skins that pop under pressure from your tongue, filling your mouth with their intensely sweet flavor. And the flavorful lifespan of a pea is very short lived. Within hours of being plucked from the vine, its natural sugars start to convert to starches.

What this means it that for absolute ideal flavor, your best bet is to get to the farmer's market early, pick up your peas (preferably still in their pods), get 'em home as soon as you can, pop them out of their pods, and blanch them in a big pot of salted boiling water. This is a good move to make, whether or not you're planning on eating them straight away. Blanching will destroy the enzymes that catalyze the sugar-to-starch reactions in the peas, freezing their flavor in place. Once chilled, they can be stored for up to two days after blanching.

Sugar snap peas are a little more forgiving in terms of maintaining their sweetness, but don't let them sit for too long in the fridge door.

Baby carrots are the other main element in this salad, and they too rely on freshness not for flavor, but for optimal texture. The thinner the carrot, the faster it loses moisture and becomes limp. With slender baby carrots like these, they'll start to go limp in a matter of hours. Your best bet for storing them for more than a day or two is to wrap them in a damp paper towel, place them in a loosely closed plastic bag, and keeping them in the vegetable crisper in the refrigerator.

Many people hate the task, but I actually quite enjoy peeling baby carrots. I find it therapeutic in the same way that, say, my mom enjoys filing her fingernails. And if peeling their bodies is like filing your nails, then peeling off the tiny bits around the root-leaf interface where dirt likes to hang out is like picking out your belly button lint. And who doesn't like doing that?

Once your peas, snap peas, and carrots are blanched (cooking fresh spring and summer produce is so darn easy!), the rest of the salad is a snap. I add creaminess by whipping together some fresh goat cheese with a good extra-virgin olive oil and flavoring it with black pepper and lemon zest, to accent the peppery notes in the oil and the tangy citrus notes of the goat cheese.

Next, I throw together a quick vinaigrette with lemon juice and olive oil bound together with just a touch of mustard and flavored with a drizzle of toasted pumpkin seed oil (any nutty oil will do). A sprinkling of toasted Marcona almonds add their buttery crunch.

Finally, the dish gets drizzled with a bit of honey (honey, goat cheese, and almonds are a natural fit), and a quick garnish of the tenderest fronds of the carrot tops.

And there you go: the same old peas and carrots from your childhood cafeteria line or TV dinner compartment. Just a little bit prettier is all.

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Peas and Carrots Salad with Goat Cheese and Almonds