The pea is the edible seed of of the Pisum sativum plant. Enclosed in long pod, it is technically a legume and is believed to have been first domesticated in Asia. Varieties can be divided into two categories: Green, or sweet, peas and field peas, which are dried for long-term storage.
The most common variety is the English, or garden pea. Its pod is too stringy to be eaten but can be used in the making of vegetable broth. Other popular varieties, known as sugar peas, can be eaten, pod and all. These include Chinese snow and sugar snap peas. The shoots, or tendrils, of the pea plant are edible and have a sweet, mild pea flavor. Green and yellow varieties can be dried, and are usually broken in half and sold as “split” peas.
After World War II, homemakers preferred the convenience of canned or frozen green peas–no more tedious shelling we suppose. But as with corn, the sugars in peas begin converting to starches shortly after being picked. So nothing sold in a can or box can match the delicious taste of freshly picked. If you’ve never had fresh garden peas, you really haven’t had them at all. They are at their absolute best in early spring when they are young and tender, but they are generally available all year long, as are snow and sugar snap varieties.
BUYING AND STORING
Fresh garden peas should have smooth, unblemished, vibrant green pods. They are somewhat translucent. If held up to the light, you should be able to make out the silhouette of the the peas inside, which should be plump but not pressing against one another. Over grown peas will be starchy and less sweet. Similarly, sugar snap peas, which are often sold pre-washed in cellophane bags, should be plump, but so much as to be busting out. The pods should be bright green and crisp and not splitting open or blemished. While the small seeds of the flat snow pea should be barely discernible, and the pods should be crisp and bright green; never flimsy or rubbery. Avoid any peas with wrinkled pods or signs of yellowing or mildew.
Freshly picked peas will hold their sweetness for about three days. Store them in plastic bag that has been perforated with a fork or knife. If you intend on freezing for longer term storage, try to do so within a day of picking to preserve as much of their sweetness as possible. Shell and blanch them for 1 or 2 minutes in boiling water. Allow them to cool and dry on a sheet pan lined with paper towels. Freeze in an airtight container, preferably a zipper freezer bag, and press out as much air as possible.
PREPARING AND COOKING
Rinse fresh green garden peas thoroughly before shelling. They will not need to be rinsed again. Add to soups and casseroles, or simply simmer them in salted water until tender, but never mushy, about 5 minutes. Drain and serve with a little butter and salt. Combine them with other spring vegetables like asparagus or baby carrots.
Frozen garden peas needn’t be thawed. Add them directly into a pan of boiling salted water, about a cup of water for every pound of peas. Stir thoroughly, and bring back up to a boil for about a minute or two. Cover the pan, remove from the heat, and allow the peas to rest until tender. Drain and add a little salt and butter.
Snow and sugar snap peas are absolutely delicious raw–excellent as crudités and served with dips. Rinse thoroughly and remove any stems as well as the long strings that run along the edges. When cooking, it’s best to leave them on the crunchy side. A quick blanch, steam or stir fry should do the trick.
Fresh pea tendrils can be rinsed, trimmed of any stems and used raw in salads or as a garnishment.
Dried split peas can be reconstituted in water or broth and used for soups or purees.
The sweetness of green peas and carrots make them a natural vegetable combination, but these small green pearls shine brightest when mixed with ham, bacon, or pancetta. They also make an excellent accompaniment with chicken, fish and scallops. Butter and cream are also good choices, and herbs like basil, tarragon, thyme, and mint pair nicely as well.