It seems that the season is almost over for peas. In central Illinois, as the temperature climbs into the 90s, you should buy them whenever you see them so you don’t miss out. Though, as the pea season comes to a close, let us learn more about peas and the 3 main varieties that you’ll find at farmers markets and the grocery store. Maybe, just maybe, you’ll still have to to get your hands on the last peas of the season and share them with your family on July 4th.
In thinking about peas, there really isn’t anything quite like them. I mean sugar snap peas deserve such a moniker because they are so sweet you could probably make a kid believe they were dessert. I can’t really think of another vegetable off the top of my head that is that sweet. Tomimaru Muchoo tomatoes are sweet, but not quite that sweet, plus they are technically a fruit, although so are pea pods. I hope some parents out there plan to take their kids to a farmers market next week and try to convince them that sugar snap peas are a dessert. Please let me know if you do and what the outcome is.
Shell peas, which are the delicious green spheres that you can get fresh (still in the shell) or that you can also find frozen or canned, are just as tasty and provide a great balance to many a dishes. I know it is non-traditional, but my mother always made Pasta Carbonara with peas which I devoured with gusto as a child. To this day I still prefer Carbonara to have peas in it. Granted, my mother also made Tuna Casserole with peas in it. To be fair, as a child I devoured that too and I haven’t eaten since I was a child.
Peas really can add so much to a dish, so I encourage you to try using them in new ways. Before we get into the techniques and practices though, let’s go over the three basic types of peas that you’ll encounter:
Shell Peas – Shell peas are sweet and round with an inedible pod. These are what you find in cans and freezer sections of grocery stores.
Sugar Snap Peas – Sugar snap peas feature juicy, sweet peas encased in a crunchy but edible pod.
Snow Peas – Snow peas are flat edible pods with undeveloped peas inside.
Did you know…
Field peas have been eaten for millennia but typically in their dried or wild form, and have been found at archaeological sites as early as the Neolithic era. The consumption of immature peas and the pod didn’t start to become popular in cuisine until the 17th century. Field peas are the varieties that are typically dried as split peas and used for dishes like split pea soup. Peas are also botanically a fruit, though they are not considered such in Western cuisines.
Fresh peas are an excellent source of vitamins A, C, K, and B6. They are also high in the minerals iron, potassium, phosphorous, magnesium, copper, and zinc. All of this great nutrition is delivered in a high-protein, high-carbohydrate, high-fiber package that is only edible in 2 of 3 instances. Unfortunately, in the case of shell peas, the inedible pod still holds a lot of nutritional value but has developed to the point of being too tough to eat and digest.
Buying & Storing
Peas are a wonderful seasonal treat and are best when eaten soon after harvest. After they’ve been harvested their sugars begin to convert to starch, thereby reducing their flavor and sweetness. Store peas in their pods in a plastic bag in your refrigerator for up to a week. Storing peas sacrifices some of their sweet flavor and crisp texture.
Peas can be frozen for long-term storage but will lose their crunchy texture. Blanch peas in boiling water for 2-4 minutes (shell pease need to be removed from their shell before blanching). Rinse under cold water to stop the cooking process, drain well, and spread out evenly on a baking sheet to freeze before placing them in an airtight freezer bag to store (this prevents them from freezing in a giant clump).
Peas don’t need much preparation. With snow peas just cut or snap the stem tip (where the pod attached to the plant) off and rinse under cold water. You can remove the string that runs on the straighter side of the snow pea pod, but most people don’t bother. Sugar snap peas typically need to have their strings removed, a process called stringing (go figure), though many people who are just eating them raw won’t bother if the pods are tender enough. To string sugar snap peas, snap the stem tip towards the flat side of the pod with your fingers and then pull the string off from top to bottom. Some people will try and remove the string from both seams of the pod, but this isn’t typically necessary (or rather, I’ve never done both side, but I’m probably wrong in my approach). To remove the other string, snap the other tip of the pod towards the opposite side and remove the string. After you string snap peas to your heart’s content, rinse them under cold water. For some helpful tips with stringing peas check out this youtube video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wm_2pDdUBTQ
With shell peas, you want the peas and not the pod. To open the pod, take the pod and press your thumb into the straight-side seam near the tip of the pod. You’ll hear a little pop or snap when you do this. Then use your fingers to open the pod along the seam and gently remove the peas. Rinse the peas under cold water. See this video for some tips on shelling peas: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BOV1BFPq34w
Peas really don’t need much cooking to be enjoyed. I would try some of the techniques below and then start to play around with them. They are very delicate and their flavor and texture suffer when overcooked. Fair warning, I use the word “overcook” a lot in the section.
Raw – snow pea pods and sugar snap pea pods can be eaten raw or put in salads (either whole or sliced/chopped). Both of them are a great raw snack with dips or on raw veggie platters with hummus.
Sautéing – you can sauté all three of the peas (both sugar snap pea and snow pea pods, as well as shelled peas) and they all go well in stir-fries, though snow peas are the clear favorites in that regard. When using the pods you should sauté them longer than if you are using just the shelled peas as you don’t want to overcook the peas. You can sauté peas alone or with other veggies and/or meats, when sautéing with other things, just add them towards the end so that they don’t overcook.
Steaming – place snow, snap and shell peas in the steamer basket of a pot over an inch of boiling water. Steam them for 2-4 minutes. Keep an eye on them and check for tenderness as you don’t want to overcook them.
Blanching – add snow, snap, or shelled peas to boiling water for 2-3 minutes. Strain them through a colander and rinse under cold water to stop the cooking. Eat them plain with a little butter, or add to your favorite cold salads and dishes.