Imagine making a fashion statement by eating fresh peas.
Although the idea may seem silly today, indulging in little green legumes was all the rage in 17th-century Europe. It was so popular that it sparked commentary from the court of King Louis XIV.
In 1696, according to The Penguin Companion to Food by Alan Davidson, Madame de Maintenon, the king's second wife, wrote: "There are some ladies who, having supped, and supped well, take peas at home before going to bed at the risk of an attack of indigestion. It's a fashion, a craze."
Although peas are no longer quite so in vogue, their unique flavor is still appreciated.
For Coleen McCarty of the Baltimore City Farms Program, there's nothing like enjoying fresh peas plucked directly from the vine.
Whether she's enjoying the subtle burst of sweetness from a shelled English pea or the delightful crunch of a snow or sugar snap pea, these delectable green veggies are a late April treat when the first pods develop on the pea plants in her Druid Hill Park garden.
"You haven't experienced a true pea until you eat one right after picking," says McCarty. "When people think of peas, they think of a can or a frozen bag."
McCarty says it's understandable why so many have experienced canned and frozen peas from a supermarket instead of fresh ones. By nature, peas aren't the most resilient produce. Unless you have access to your own pea plants, freshly picked peas are hard to come by because of a short growing season in this region.
According to McCarty, pea plants grow best in cool climates (ideally in 45-degree weather) when the ground has been fully thawed. She says the first pea harvests can come as early as mid-April, depending on the weather. After summer heat has waned, a surge of cool weather in the beginning of fall may allow a small pocket of time for one last harvest before winter.
"Mid- to late March is a good time for planting your seeds, as long as the weather is forgiving," says McCarty. "Your plants should be OK until about late June, when the weather can become too hot for the vines to handle."
The weather on Maryland's Eastern Shore is a bit more forgiving for pea plants.
Thomas Handwerker, director of the Small Farm Institute at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore, says that the Shore reaps the benefits of being in close proximity to the Atlantic Ocean.
"Peas are the type of crop that need a moderate climate," says Handwerker. "Without long periods of extreme cold or hot, we're able to plant earlier and harvest later."
A short flavor life also contributes to the limited availability of fresh peas.
According to Melissa's Great Book of Produce by Cathy Thomas, English peas can start losing their sweetness as soon as four hours after the peas are harvested. The loss of sweetness comes when the peas' sugar content starts turning to starch, giving the peas a milder flavor.
The process of flash-freezing, which has greatly increased their availability, helps preserve the sugar content and shelf life of fresh peas.
But preservation methods have their downsides. McCarty says that even when peas are flash-frozen shortly after being removed from the vine, the required defrosting and cooking can adversely affect a pea's overall texture.
"If you're going to get frozen peas, go for English peas instead of snow or sugar snaps," says McCarty. "But even for English types, they just don't compare to fresh."
If you don't have a garden or a pea plant, executive chef Jesse Sandlin of Abacrombie restaurant says farmers' markets are a good source because of how carefully peas are handled and maintained before appearing at the market.
Joan Norman of One Straw Farm in White Hall picks her sugar snap peas the night before bringing them to the market and immediately puts them in a cooler to preserve the crunch and sweetness as much as possible.
"Sugar snaps have the most sugar content and can hold up well even after they are picked," says Norman. "Peas are perfect on their own, plain and uncooked, but can also be a good addition to any meal."
Chef Sandlin couldn't agree more. As a special on her menu, she makes a fresh English pea soup, shelling the peas before blanching them with cream, salt and pepper. She says even the shells can be cooked with a mirepoix to make a broth for later.
"The difference between fresh and frozen, even when used as a part of a recipe, is off the charts," says Sandlin. "They just aren't the same animal."
Aside from the issues of shelf and flavor life, Sandlin says a great amount of labor goes into using fresh English peas in recipes. It takes two full cases of shelled peas to make two gallons of her soup.
"It takes a while, so I am lucky that I'm at a small restaurant and can sit and shell two cases of peas after Sunday brunch," she says. "In bigger restaurants, that might not be the case."
While Sandlin is quick to use peas in recipes, she's a bit more careful when offering them as a stand-alone vegetable.
"Although you're much more likely to see peas as a stand-alone vegetable in a fine dining restaurant, many customers relate peas to a can instead of a delicious, well-prepared vegetable," says Sandlin. "Peas are often given a negative connotation because of people's experiences with them as children."
Peas: types and tips
There are many different varieties of peas, and each has its own qualities:
The bulging bright-green pods may be inedible, but they hold a row of round and tender green peas. These peas are particularly sweet, especially when eaten soon after harvest. They can be eaten raw or cooked.
These wide, flat and light-green pods are filled with small and immature sweet peas. The crunchy pods and the peas inside are all edible. They are slightly sweeter than English peas and can be eaten raw or cooked.
Sugar snap peas:
Entirely edible like the snow pea, the crunchy pods of a sugar snap pea are more plump and have a deeper green color. The peas on the inside also have a sweeter flavor. They can be eaten raw or cooked.
Pea shoots and leaves:
These crispy green vines of the pea plant are riddled with curly tendrils and tender leaves. Although they are sometimes used raw in lettuce mixes, pea shoots and leaves also can be cooked.
English, snow and sugar snap peas:
Look for peas with bright, glossy green pods. Avoid peas with pods that are limp or discolored. English peas should feel heavy for their size and held in place by the pod. Shake the pod to make sure of this. Medium-sized peas are sweetest. Oversized peas can have a mild, starchy flavor. Snow peas and sugar snap peas should feel and sound crisp when you snap one in half.
Pea shoots and leaves:
Choose shoots and leaves that are bright green and appear crisp and fresh.
English, snow and sugar snap peas:
Try to use English peas immediately after buying because their sugar content could start turning to starch as soon as four hours after harvest. They can be stored up to two days in a perforated plastic bag inside the crisper drawer of a refrigerator.
Snow and sugar snap peas last a bit longer. They will keep from four to seven days in a perforated bag stored in the crisper drawer of a refrigerator.
Pea shoots and leaves:
The delicate shoots should be put in a plastic bag and stored in the crisper drawer of a refrigerator up to two days.
Thai Fresh Pea Soup
6 cups vegetable broth, plus more as needed (divided use)
1 cup chopped onions
4 garlic cloves, finely minced
2 teaspoons green curry paste
8 cups shelled peas (thawed if using frozen)
salt and pepper as needed
1 teaspoon lightly toasted mustard seeds
1/4 cup chopped mint
Add about 1/2 cup of the broth to a soup pot and bring to a simmer over medium heat. Add the onions, garlic and curry paste. Saute, stirring frequently, until the onions are softened and translucent, about 5 minutes.
Add the remaining broth to the pot and bring to a boil. Add the peas, cover the soup and simmer over low heat for 10 minutes.
Remove the pot from the heat and let the soup cool for at least 10 minutes before pureeing with a hand-held blender. If you are using a countertop blender or food processor, strain the soup through a sieve and reserve the liquid.
Add the solids to the blender jar or food processor bowl; do not overfill. Add a little of the liquid, replace the cover (without the vent from the lid or feed tube), and puree until smooth. Add more liquid if necessary to help puree the solids. Transfer the pureed soup to a clean pot. Continue until all of the solids are pureed.
Blend the soup and adjust the consistency by adding some of the remaining reserved liquid. (The soup is ready to finish now, or it can be cooled and stored up to 2 days in the refrigerator or up to 1 month in the freezer.)
Return the soup to a simmer over low heat. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve the soup in heated bowls, garnished with the toasted mustard seeds and chopped mint.
Courtesy of the Culinary Institute of America
Per serving: 133 calories, 8 grams protein, 1 gram fat, 0 grams saturated fat, 25 grams carbohydrate, 7 grams fiber, 0 milligrams cholesterol, 909 milligrams sodium
Risotto With Sugar Snap Peas and Prosciutto
Makes 8 servings
5 cups chicken stock
5 cups water
4 tablespoons butter (divided use)
1/4 pound sliced prosciutto, cut in 1/4 -inch-wide strips
2/3 cup minced onions
1 (1 pound) box or 2 1/3 cups short-grain rice, preferably arborio, carnaroli or vialone nano
3/4 pound sugar snap peas, strings removed and ends trimmed, then cut in 1/2 - to 3/4 -inch pieces
2 tablespoons minced chives
1/3 cup grated parmesan
Combine the stock and water in a large pot and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to maintain a faint simmer.
Melt 2 tablespoons butter in a large skillet or wide-bottomed pot over medium heat. Add the prosciutto and cook until it renders some of its fat, about 3 minutes. Add the onions and cook until tender and translucent, another 3 minutes. Add the rice and cook, stirring constantly, until the kernels are coated with the fat and you can see a translucent area around the outside of each one, surrounding a solid "eye" in the center.
Begin adding the stock, 1/2 cup to 3/4 cup at a time. The skillet should be hot enough that there is a loud sizzle each time the liquid is splashed in. Cook, stirring, until the liquid is almost absorbed by the rice; there should be a thin layer of liquid in the bottom of the pan.
Repeat until the rice is tender but not mushy. It should be neither chalky in the center nor pasty. It should take about 17 minutes in all and use up most, if not all, of the stock.
With the last addition of stock, taste and season with salt if necessary. Stir in the sugar snap peas. Cook until they are bright green, about 3 to 4 minutes, and the rice is coated in creamy broth. Remove from the heat and vigorously stir in the chives, parmesan and the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter. Serve immediately.
Recipe and analysis provided by the Los Angeles Times
Per serving: 290 calories, 12 grams protein, 39 grams carbohydrate, 3 grams fiber, 10 grams fat, 5 grams saturated fat, 31 milligrams cholesterol, 371 milligrams sodium
Fresh Garden Pea Salad
1 cup fresh garden peas, shelled and boiled
1/2 cup freshly chopped spring onions
1 clove finely diced spring garlic
1 tablespoon mayonnaise
salt and/or fresh ground pepper to taste
2 handfuls mixed field greens
Combine fresh peas, spring onions, garlic and mayonnaise in a bowl and mix until mayonnaise is evenly distributed among the other ingredients.
Season by adding salt and/or fresh pepper to taste. Place the mixed field greens on a plate and serve the pea-salad mixture over the greens.
Recipe courtesy of Coleen McCarty, Baltimore City Farms Program
Per serving: 269 calories, 11 grams protein, 12 grams fat, 2 grams saturated fat, 32 grams carbohydrate, 9 grams fiber, 5 milligrams cholesterol, 128 milligrams sodium