May ABODE: Secret ingredient

(File photo)

A fresh pea tastes like a gift from the earth. When pinched off the vine and eaten immediately (preferably with dirty feet and a basket full of fresh lettuce), their crisp sweetness is always a reminder of the merits of fresh food. Tempt a toddler to pick a pod or two and then reveal the peas nestled inside like a prize; even a toddler knows what to do! One wonders if the concept of candy originated with a fresh spring pea…

Peas are part of the legume family—famed fixers of nitrogen in soil, sturdy stockpilers of protein digestible to humans and animals both. The term “pea” describes immature seeds that are stripped from the pod (in the case of the English pea) or enjoyed in an edible, digestible pod (in the case of snow peas and sugar snap peas).

Peas of the world
Legumes that have been dried are called (as a group) pulses. Internationally, pulses play a vital role in traditional cooking, often served at most meals alongside porridges and breads made from regional grains. Even if English peas pass their prime to become starchy and stiff, do not despair—shell them and roast them in a 400 degree oven, then toss with ground cumin, smoked paprika and salt and pepper for a Derby-worthy snack—perfectly paired with a mint julep.

Snow peas originated in China. When they arrived in Europe, the French issued a command, “mange tout,” which became their name in that language. Translation? Eat it all. While their concave pods are quite flat and tender, the stem and tail end are typically snapped off prior to serving. Snow peas can be eaten raw—chopped into spring salads, or sliced on the diagonal and marinated in a rice wine vinaigrette with green onions and sesame oil—and are also excellent cooked. But beware! They need very little time in the pan, so stir them into your wok after the rest of the ingredients.


Fresh peas
If you grow them at home, try to harvest any type of pea each day in the early morning. Store English peas in their pods in the refrigerator, and shell just before cooking and eating. Toss raw over salad with chopped mint and feta cheese, or pour cooked pasta (still hot!) over raw peas prior to stirring in prosciutto, parmigiano, and olive oil. Wash sugar snaps and snow peas just before cooking—the water will help them stay moist throughout any kind of cooking.

Peas to freeze
English peas can be shelled and frozen in small amounts each day; freeze them in a single layer on a cookie sheet or in a wide bowl, then empty into a freezer bag and exclude air. It isn’t necessary to cook and puree them for, say, baby food or pea soup, as they will cook so quickly upon thawing and can be pureed and seasoned at that point.

Our kitchen columnist, Lisa Reeder, is an educator and advocate for local and regional food production in Central Virginia. She received chef’s training in New York and currently works in Farm Services and Distribution at the Local Food Hub.

Meanwhile, the common garden pea, or English pea (which you ought not call common, missy) rose to prominence in England and throughout the British Empire in the 18th and 19th centuries. Despite crossing to the New World with American colonists (imagine—a dried food that might double as a seed!), the garden pea prefers consistent, cool temperatures and not too much sun—England, anyone?

In the years following the genetic research of Gregor Mendel (that’s right, wrinkled vs. smooth peas), scientists continued to manipulate the genetics of peas, finally arriving in 1970 at a cross of the English pea and the Chinese snow pea—the sugar snap pea. The pod is edible and surprisingly sweet (like the snow pea), and the peas themselves are plump and tender, for those old-timers who insist upon shelling.

Peas of the past
In perusing cookbooks from the past, one finds recipes that suggest adding sugar and salt to 1" of boiling water and cooking fresh peas for eight to 25 minutes; the cooking liquid could then be reduced and poured over the cooked peas to rewarm them. At that point, their flavor and texture would have been so flaccid that the “nutritional” cooking water may have brightened them up a bit.—Lisa Reeder

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