Monday, May 17, 2010

P is for Potluck (and Peas!)

7 Layer Salad by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

Contrary to what many believe, May, not December, is the busiest month for my colleagues in the mommy business. You may think that December, with class parties and church happenings, would be the craziest time of the year, but the end of the school year seems to slip on us and before we know it, we’re slammed with breathlessly important occasions such as Teacher Appreciation Days and Fifth Grade Graduation and the End of Year Soccer/Beta Club/Band Party. All of these occasions demand food and eventually folks tire of pizza and that’s where the mommies step up and bring a covered dish.

The queen of the covered dish is my friend Julie. We’ve been friends since college, and twenty years after rooming together at UGA, we still seemed stunned that we spend our lives in carpool lines and not behind desks. Julie is a first-class cook and is always the first to volunteer to bring a dish to an event. In our weekly call from the carpool line, she told me that her latest success was a layered salad. If you're not familiar with the layered salad, it's the kind of recipe that Paula Deen has built an empire around. It's a potluck staple, a green salad layered in a pretty glass bowl with green peas, onions, bacon and cheese, then topped with a creamy mayonnaise dressing.

“It was a big hit,” she said. It kind of surprised her, but “you know, nobody cooks anymore. They eat in restaurants or if they cook, they open a box first.” We’ve decided that we’re the last of the casserole queens, the ones who cook from scratch and carry a dish to every family, church and school gathering. I suppose layered salad is kind of a cold casserole, with the base of lettuce substituting for pasta or rice, and the requisite green vegetable, peas in the middle. Topped with cheese, and mayonnaise subbing for the cream of whatever soup, and you see what I mean.

can o peas

Julie’s recipe is from her church cookbook, and it’s from Miss Ethel Arrington, a woman who never married and played the organ at the church. Miss Ethel Arrington specified a can of LeSueur Peas in her layered salad, and Julie doesn’t substitute. The silver can is a guilty pleasure for me - I can’t think of LeSueur ("Very Young Small Early") peas without memories of my Grandmother Kitty, with her Montgomery, Alabama, accent, saying “LeSu-wuuuuu-er peas.” She served them at all family gatherings, convinced that the only green vegetable that her many grandchildren would eat is LeSueur brand peas. The menu would include a cooked ham, potato salad with and without celery (another story for another time), heated canned peas, blueberry Jell-O salad (the kind with the cream cheese topping) and, if we were lucky, her homemade itty-bitty biscuits.

While I keep a can of LeSueur peas in the pantry, I'm more likely to use frozen English peas when I cook. Peas are the only vegetable that comes to mind that is nearly as good frozen as fresh. It's a frozen pantry staple for me - a handful of peas thrown into a stir fry or added at the last minute to beef stew. Frozen peas are a kitchen workhorse, completing the sacred triumverate in a meat and potato meal, or adding their sweet mellow selves to a potluck dish. In a pinch, the bag of frozen peas makes a handy ice pack for boo-boos. (At the very least, it will get a giggle from your child.)

My layered salad is adapted from, perhaps the church cookbook of the internet age. If you want to be true to Miss Ethel Arrington and my grandmother, use two cans of LeSueur peas, drained, instead of the frozen, thawed, English peas. Peas are a good choice for the layered salad, between the sharp onion and crunchy lettuce, creamy mayonnaise dressing and salty bacon, the emerald spheres make pleasant, sweet pops in your mouth.

layered salad
7 layer salad. Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

Sweet Pea Seven-Layered Salad

1 lb. bacon, cooked, crumbled, drained

1 head of iceberg lettuce, chopped

1 bunch green onions, all of white and some green, chopped fine

1 (12 oz.) package frozen green peas, thawed

1 ½ cups shredded Cheddar cheese

1 cup chopped cauliflower

1 ¼ cups mayonnaise

2 tablespoons sugar

4 perfectly cooked hard-boiled eggs, peeled and diced

A handful of wasabi peas, optional

1. In a small bowl, stir together mayonnaise and sugar and let rest while you assemble the salad.

2. Use a large, clear glass bowl, if you have one, but any large, deep bowl will do. Place the lettuce in the bottom of the bowl and top with a layer of onion, then follow with peas, shredded cheese and cauliflower. Spread mayonnaise mixture on top of salad. Sprinkle bacon and egg on top. Cover and refrigerate until ready to serve.

3. If you want a little kick to your layered salad, add my favorite crunchy/spicy snack - wasabi peas across the top of individual servings.
© 2010, Lucy Mercer.

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