Real Food Right Now and How to Cook It: Peas

Peas don’t like me. I consider myself a fairly proficient gardener (though there is always, always more to learn), but I never can get a good pea harvest. I’ve had problems with germination, problems with birds (they love the tender young shoots and curly pea tendrils, and can decimate an entire row of peas in no time flat) and pea plants with no peas. I have come to terms with the fact that I’m just not a good pea grower – I tend to wing it in the garden, and peas maybe need a little more precision and planning and lots and lots of bird netting. But boy, do I love peas. I like their sweet flavor, which I think of simply as “green” – as if one could taste the color. I love unzipping the pods and popping the fresh peas out. I love the crack of the aptly named sugar snaps between my teeth, and the elegant, delicate beauty of pea tendrils atop a teacup full of bright green pea soup. I’ll admit, I planted some peas in my backyard this year – I’m a glutton for punishment. I’m hoping for the best.

A Brief History

Peas are a type of legume native to the Middle East, specifically to the area around what is now Turkey and Iraq. According to scientists, domestication of wild pea plants probably began with the dawn of agriculture itself, with carbonized pea remains showing up in Neolithic archeological sites in Turkey and Iraq (around 7,000 to 6,000 BCE), where they were likely companion plants to early-domesticated forms of wheat and barley. From the Middle East, the legume spread rapidly to Europe. These early forms of pea, now called field peas, were probably cultivated to be eaten like a legume (that is, dried). According to food historian Alan Davidson, the first finding of the garden pea (mostly grown to be eaten fresh, rather than dried – although both field and garden peas were eaten dried) comes from Bronze Age archeological remains in Switzerland, around 3,000 BCE. The ancient Greeks and Romans also cultivated the garden pea, and from these areas the plant spread to India and China. Davidson notes that the pea was an important source of food for peasants in the Middle Ages, providing protein and other nutrients in lean times. Italian Catherine di Medici, wife of French King Henry II, is credited with introducing peas (among other innovations, like the fork and the artichoke to 16th century France, where they quickly became a food fad.

According to The Encyclopedia of American Food & Drink, Christopher Columbus purportedly brought peas to the West Indies on his infamous 1492 voyage; by the early 17th century, peas were cultivated in the early American settlement of Jamestown, Virginia. Plant breeder Calvin Lamborn developed the “sugar snap” variety in 1979 by crossing garden peas with snow peas. 

Factual Nibbles

  • Warning: this may make you squeamish: pea plants apparently communicate with one another. Yup, stressed-out peas communicate their discomfort to other pea plants around them, which make the peas on the receiving end freak out, too. (Please see my super-scientific summary of this paper.) 
  • Peas were key to the creation of the modern science of genetics: Gregor Mendel, an Austro-Hungarian monk, conducted the very first experiments on the inheritance of traits in pea plants, which lead to the formation his theory of inheritance, which basically forms the basis of all of genetics.· 
  • According to historians at Monticello, home of avid gardener Thomas Jefferson, TJ and his neighbors had a yearly contest to see whose peas would be harvested first. Jefferson almost always lost.· 
  • One of the most annoying nursery rhymes of all time (I’m speaking from experience as a mom to a 2 12 year old) is about peas, or rather, porridge (thick soup) made from dried peas: “Pease porridge hot/Pease porridge cold/Pease porridge in the pot nine days old/Some like it hot/Some like it cold/Some like it in the pot nine days old!” No one  likes it in the pot nine days old. No one

Cultivation

Cool-weather loving, climbing peas are usually one of the very first to be planted (and harvested) in the spring. Part of the Leguminosae (or Fabaceae) family – aka, the bean or legume family – cultivated peas are divided into four major varieties: 1 ) The common garden pea (Pisum sativum var. sativum) has pods that are too tough to eat but really yummy seeds; 2 ) The snow pea (Pisum sativum var. macrocarpon) has flat pods that are eaten whole; 3 ) The sugar snap pea (Pisum sativum var. macrocarpon ser. cv) has rounded, thick walled pods that are also eaten whole; and 4 ) The field pea (Pisum sativum var. arvense), grown to be dried and eaten like a bean or legume. Pea plants have cute little (edible) tendrils that help them climb, and beautiful flowers that range from white to pink to purple. 

China, India, the UK and the US lead the world in garden pea growing, while Canada and Russia grow the most dried peas. (They like their pease porridge hot!)

Seasonality

Garden peas, sugar snaps and snow peas are all spring crops, available in most parts of the US starting in April (if we’re lucky). Pea season may extend all the way to June or July in cooler areas. Pea sprouts and pea tendrils are usually the very first part of the pea plant to show up at the market. 

Environmental Impact

Frozen peas make an appearance at number 46 on the latest Environmental Working Group’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce, due to a possible plethora of pesticides used on conventionally grown peas (most of which end up frozen). Snap peas show up not once, but twice on the list – domestic snap peas at number 30 and imported at number 15 (the lower the number, the more pesticide residues). (*Check out our vegetable rule of thumb.) If you’re concerned about pesticides, go for fresh peas in the pod from your local farmer (or fresh sugar snaps or snow peas) and be sure to ask your farmer about his/her growing practices. 

Characteristics

Garden peas come in a pretty wide range of sizes – the smallest, called “petit pois” (“little peas” in French) are the sweetest and most tender, while larger garden peas tend to be a bit starchier. Garden peas are usually bright green, but they also come in yellow and purple varieties. Sugar snaps have been bred to have a thicker pod wall – they are crunchier and juicier than their snow pea cousins, which have flatter, thinner, more flexible pods and minimal seed (pea) development. 

What to look for

For garden peas, look for pods that are plump and bright green, with no wilted or brown spots. Sugar snaps should be plump and crisp (they should “snap” when you break one in half) – floppy sugar snaps are a no-go. Snow peas should be bright green and pliable, with no wilty spots. Pea shoots (or sprouts) are very young pea plants; they should also be bright green – and pass on wilted shoots. Pea tendrils are slightly more mature than pea shoots – they include pea leaves and the delicate, beautiful little tendrils that the pea plants use to climb. The younger the better – older, more mature pea tendrils (which will have thicker stems and larger leaves, usually) tend to get a bit tough (OK if you’re going to sauté or braise them, but sort of choke-inducing if you’re planning on eating them raw). 

Nutrition

Every variety of pea is really good for you – they sort of combine the nutritional benefits of veggies with the good stuff in legumes. Garden peas are higher in calories than most other veggies and are rich in fiber and protein. They also have huge amounts of vitamins C, A, K and folate, and are high in manganese, iron, zinc and magnesium. They even contain a little bit of calcium. Dried peas (aka split peas) have even more protein and fiber than fresh peas, and contain more folate and potassium than fresh (but much less vitamins A, C and K). Snow peas and sugar snaps have a crazy amount of vitamin C – just one cup provides you with 128 percent of your daily vitamin C needs. They’re also super high in vitamins A and K and are good sources of iron and vitamin B6. 

What to Do with It

All parts of the pea plant are edible – from the shoots, tendrils and leaves, flowers, pods and, of course, the seeds (the peas themselves). So remarkably versatile, the various varieties of our friend the pea, including garden peas, sugar snap peas, snow peas and dried peas, each work their own little bit of magic in the kitchen.

Cooking

Natural partners with garden peas and sugar snaps include mint, butter, cream, bacon and prosciutto, lettuce (I swoon over this pea and lettuce braise by Jamie Oliver), onions (especially spring onions) and mushrooms, especially their spring-y counterparts, morels. (I’m freaking out over this braised pea, morel and fiddleheads recipe by Bill Telepan!) Snow peas and sugar snaps are at home in stir-fries,  pairing beautifully with garlic, sesame oil and soy sauce; sugar snaps are also pretty excellent raw. Pea shoots and tendrils can be eaten like a green – braised in a little bit of liquid, or sautéed, or tossed, raw, into salads. Or made into pea shoot pesto. Even garden pea pods don’t have to be tossed into the compost bin: make them into pea pod soup! Garden peas are also pretty popular in South Asian cuisine – one of the most famous (and delicious) is the Punjabi aloo matar (peas and potatoes). 

Dried peas (split peas) are mostly made into porridges and soups – they tend to break down quite a bit when cooked. Split pea soup is one of my favorite winter soups; it’s common to chuck a ham hock or other pork-y goodness in with the peas while the soup cooks. 

Pro tips

Like many good things in life, garden peas take some serious elbow grease to get them out of those pesky pods. Here’s a great tutorial on how to shell peas from Chocolate and Zucchini. If that fails, you can always get your dog to shell your peas for you. 

Storage

Fresh peas in the pod will keep for at least a week in the produce drawer of your refrigerator; even after a longer period of time, when the pods look a little gnarly, the peas inside are usually OK. (They will get starchier and less sweet the longer you wait to cook them, though.) Snow peas and sugar snaps will each keep for about a week in the ‘fridge, too. Pea shoots and pea tendrils are much more delicate – use them within a couple days, max. Wrap them in a damp paper towel and stick in an open zip top bag to store them.  

Stretching your fresh food dollar though preservation

Pickle your peas! Here are pickled sugar snaps, pickled garden peas and pickled snow peas. Canned peas turn to mush, as those of us who went to public school know well, but you can do it. But really, the very best way to preserve garden peas, sugar snaps and snow peas are to freeze them – little is lost in terms of texture and flavor. Here’s how you do it.

Recipe

Fresh Peas with Brown Butter, Green Garlic and Mint

Young, tiny peas (aka petit pois) – if you can find them – are the best for this recipe. If can’t find teeny tiny peas, blanch larger peas first in salted, boiling water for 30 seconds to one minute, and drain well. Green garlic is immature garlic – they look like scallions or green onions with flatter green parts (unlike garlic scapes, which are the flower stalks of garlic). They have a very mild garlic flavor. Sub young scallions or green onions if you can’t find green garlic. Mint is a classic herb pairing with peas, but play around with this – try chervil, parsley or even basil later in the summer.  (In many places, there will be just a short window when both peas and basil are available – peas being cool weather loving plants and basil requiring warm temps.) Finally, I find it easiest to make brown butter in a stainless steel (or similar) light colored sauté pan (as opposed to darker anodized aluminum or nonstick). That way, you can easily see the color of the butter solids – it can go from perfect brown butter to burned butter pretty quickly, so keep a close eye on it.
 
Ingredients: 
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
3-4 stalks green garlic, root ends trimmed, tough leaves discarded
1 lb. tiny fresh peas in the pod, shelled (weigh before shelling)
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
Squeeze fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon fresh mint, chopped

Method:
1. Slice the trimmed green garlic stalks into thin rounds (white and green parts). Set aside.
2.In a small, heavy, light-colored sauté pan, heat the butter over medium-high heat until melted. Add the sliced green garlic and begin swirling the pan. Continue swirling until the butter starts to smell nutty and you begin to see the butter solids turn from white to golden brown – this will take about 2 minutes (give or take – timing heavily depends on the type of pan you use). 
3. Immediately add the peas, a generous pinch of salt and freshly ground pepper. Continue swirling until the butter solids are brown, the green garlic slices are slightly browned at the edges and the peas are tender, at least 1 -2 more minutes.  
4. Add the lemon juice and remove from heat. 5. Stir in the fresh mint and serve immediately.

(*Vegetable rule of thumb: We think that first and foremost, in terms of nutrition, people should eat lots of fruits and vegetables whether they are organic or not. The EWG’s guide is a handy list, but we will point out here that the impacts of pesticides are not limited to your ingestion of them – agricultural chemicals also affect farmworkers and local waterways, both good reasons to buy organic, even those vegetables that carry a light pesticide load. Also, it has been demonstrated that produce grown by small-scale farmers, even those who are not certified organic, tends to have a lighter pesticide load than its industrially-produced counterpart, owing to industry’s tendency toward large monocrops.)

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