One of the first crops to go in, the sweet and crunchy pea is a sure sign of spring for many cooks and gardeners. It is a gardener’s delight to watch the pea’s delicate tendrils twist and turn their way up garden stakes towards the sun. In the kitchen, peas are quite flexible and adapt well to sweet and savory dishes across almost any cuisine. One of our favorite ways to eat them is to pick them right from the garden, rinse, shuck, and then eat them raw! Peas are also a surprising treat in a salad of spring greens and can also be gently cooked and added to other dishes. The pea’s vibrant color and sweet crunch are sure to be welcome additions to your spring fare.
Shell peas, sometimes known as green, garden, or English peas, have been around for nearly 12,000 years. Edible-pod peas or sugar peas, such as Chinese snow peas or the crunchy sugar snap pea, are relative new comers whose pods bring a world of new uses to the table; they are most notably seen in Asian stir-fries.
When buying fresh green peas, look for firm, glossy pods. Many produce experts suggest that you open one or two of the pods at the market to be sure that they are full of plump, medium-sized peas; oversized peas are likely to be tough and will need to be cooked before eating. If the market owner will let you taste one—that’s even better (most farmers’ market vendors will have samples, which, of course, we encourage you to try)! Peas should be sweet with a crisp texture. Snow peas should be shiny and flat, the smaller ones being the sweetest. Sugar snaps should be bright green, plump, and firm. When shopping, keep in mind that a pound of green peas in the pod will yield about one cup of shelled peas and that a quarter-pound of snow peas or sugar snaps will usually be sufficient for one serving as a side dish.
Regardless of type, store fresh peas in your refrigerator’s vegetable bin, wrapped loosely in plastic. Don’t delay—peas should be eaten as quickly as possible to capture their natural sweetness. Up to 40 percent of their sugar is converted into starch within a few hours of harvest! Peas freeze well, and frozen peas—whether purchased frozen or blanched and frozen at homeout of your garden—are convenient and can be added to many recipes without thawing.
All peas should be rinsed and their strings removed before use. For green peas, snap off the stem end and carefully pull the string down the length of the pod. For snow peas, cut the tips at both ends of the pod. Sugar snap peas do not need to have their tips cut at all, but their strings run around both sides of the pod and need to be completely removed. In addition to being fabulous eaten fresh, peas cook quickly, making them even more recipe friendly. Peas are best steamed, stir-fried, or braised quickly in butter. Try adding a bit of sugar to the skillet while cooking to highlight their natural sweetness. Cook just under five minutes, making sure they retain their bright green flavor.