Sweet green peas are in season
Luscious, sweet, tender peas are one of the finest treats of summer. Freshly picked, stripped from their pods, steamed quickly and tossed with some sweet butter and just a pinch of salt — if you’ve never had fresh peas, you’re in for a treat. They do not compare in flavor or texture to brown, mushy canned peas or even to frozen peas.
We call them English peas because of their popularity in Britain, and to differentiate them from Oriental pod peas which are becoming increasingly widespread. They’re also known as green peas or garden peas.
Peas were probably first picked wild and later cultivated in Asia. But these were not the tender peas we know today. Green peas — picked immature and not allowed to dry into split peas — did not become popular until the 17th century in Italy, France and England. The British developed new varieties of peas to be picked fresh, which became known as garden peas or English peas.
Before that, Europeans only knew dried peas — what we call split peas or marrowfat peas. In England, they were cooked into pease pudding or pease porridge; in America, they’re most often eaten in split pea soup.
Worldwide, there are more than 1,000 varieties of peas. These include yellow and green field peas (the kind usually sold dried); fresh shell peas (known as English, Green, or Garden Peas); many varieties of snow peas, the pea pods often used in Chinese cooking; snap peas (like the sugar snap); chickpeas (also called garbanzo beans) and cowpeas.
Peas are legumes. When combined with grain, they make a complete protein. They’re a good source of both fiber and carbohydrates, and are low in fat. They contain many B complex vitamins, including folic acid, as well as vitamin A and the minerals calcium, iron, zinc, potassium, and magnesium. A half-cup serving of fresh green peas contains 62 calories, 4 grams of protein, 11 grams of carbohydrates and 4 grams of fiber.
Fresh green peas have a limited season, and are a rarity in the supermarket. By the time they reach the store shelf, their sugar has turned to starch and they have lost most of their sweetness. At room temperature, half their sugar content will turn to starch in a few hours, and they will become mealy. Refrigeration slows, but does not stop, this process. Therefore, 95% of commercially grown peas are canned, frozen or dried. In fact, peas were one of the first vegetables to be commercially canned by Campbell’s in 1870.
When buying green peas, look for pods that are full, shiny, crisp, and green, with a velvety feel. Move them around; the peas should rattle a bit in the pod. Avoid pods that are very large, puffy, dulled, yellowed or dry. You will need a lot; a pound of pod peas will yield only about a cup when shelled. But don’t buy too much at once; it’s best to eat them the day you buy them. Keep them refrigerated and in the pods until you plan to use them.
To use, rinse the pods, then pinch off the top and pull the string to open. You can push out peas clinging to the pod with your finger. They cook quickly; three to five minutes should be enough. They can be eaten raw, steamed or cooked in the microwave. A classic French method is to cook or rather steam them in a nest of lettuce leaves, Avoid using salt in the cooking process, as it toughens the peas. If you want to season them, do so after they’re cooked, with a little butter and salt, or fresh herbs.
There are a myriad ways to cook the little round peas. Because peas are legumes, they go great mixed into all types of grain salads, like rice, quinoa and barley. Eaten that way, they are a complete protein. Hot or cold, they’re good in all types of grain, pasta or potato dishes.
They’re great with ham or chicken. They combine well with other vegetables, like carrots, mushrooms and onions. A traditional Italian dish combines prosciutto with onions and peas, served over pasta with a creamy sauce. One of my favorite summer suppers combines fresh sweet peas and salty ham and potatoes.
Italian Style Pasta with Peas
1/2 pound chunky pasta (ziti, shells, wide egg noodles)
1 Tablespoon butter
salt and pepper (a pinch of each)
1/4 pound prosciutto or ham
2 cups freshly shelled peas
1 cup half-and-half (you can also use whole milk or heavy cream)
2 Tablespoons freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Heat a large pot of salted water. Add pasta and cook al dente according to package directions.
While pasta is cooking, prepare the sauce.
In a large skillet, melt the butter. Peel and dice the onion, and add. Sprinkle with a pinch of salt and pepper.
Add diced prosciutto or ham, cover, and cook slowly about 20 minutes on low heat, stirring occasionally, to soften the onions and draw out the flavor of the onions and prosciutto without dying out the meat. Add the freshly shelled green peas, stir, and cook 2 more minutes.
Add the half-and-half and continue to simmer, stirring occasionally, about 15 minutes.
Stir in the cooked pasta and toss well with the sauce. Cook about 5 minutes.
Remove from heat. Stir in the cheese and freshly ground black pepper. Toss well. The sauce will thicken a bit
Serve hot, with additional Parmigiano and black pepper.
Serves 3 to 4.
For a vegetarian dish, omit the meat. It will still be delicious and the peas and pasta combine to make a complete protein.
Pea, Grain and Pickle Salad
1 cup brown rice, barley, millet, quinoa or any other grain
1 cup shelled peas
1 large pickle
1 cup chopped chives
1/3 cup grated Swiss cheese
1 cup sugar snap peas, sliced (optional)
2 teaspoons olive oil
1 teaspoon honey
1 Tablespoon cider vinegar
Cook grain in lightly salted water according to package directions. The time will depend on the type of grain you’re using.
As soon as it finishes cooking, stir fresh shelled peas into the hot grain. Cover and let sit for 20 minutes or longer; the heat of the rice will soften the peas. (This part can be done early in the day, if you wish).
In the meantime, dice the pickle and chop the chives. Stir into the cooled pea and grain mixture, along with cheese and cut-up snap peas, if using. Stir in 1/4 cup of the liquid from the pickles along with the olive oil, honey and vinegar. Taste; you may wish to add more of the dressing ingredients.
Makes about 4 one-cup servings.
Author of the award-winning cookbook “Garden Gourmet: Fresh & Fabulous Meals from your Garden, CSA or Farmers’ Market,” Yvona Fast lives in Lake Clear and has two passions: cooking and writing. She can be found at www.yvonafast.com and reached at email@example.com or on Facebook at Words Are My World.