Spring is in the air and with it comes the appearance of fresh locally grown produce and flowers that we are all so ready for after many months of frozen earth and snow. We still have a couple months before peas are harvested but they are planted in April by many a gardener anxious for the growing season to begin. We gladly await the appearance of peas sometime in June or early July, depending on the weather conditions that Mother Nature has in store for us.
English Peas are definitely a harbinger of spring, being the first hardy vegetable off a vine, available after lettuce and other greens. They are some of the sweetest and most succulent of them all. One of my fondest memories about peas from my childhood was going to my uncle’s house outside Boston. He was an avid gardener and had a big plot of peas along with berries and other vegetables in his backyard. Every June we would have a family reunion and all the nieces and nephews would raid his pea patch since they always seemed to be ready to harvest just about that time. We then sat down on the lawn and enjoyed the mindless work of scooping out the tender small peas from inside the pods with our fingers and swallowing them down, enjoying their ever so sweet taste. I rarely remember cooked peas as a child except on a few occasions when my mother cooked them with mint for just a few minutes so as not to ruin their sweet and fresh taste. I do recall a few times being served canned peas for hot lunch at school and after trying them once I could never stomach their horrible taste that did not resemble a fresh pea whatsoever!! As far as I am concerned, they should not ever can peas—they are a disgrace to the real pea— although frozen peas are acceptable.
Botanically peas are a fruit since they contain seeds developed from a flower. They are a legume since they bear fruit in a pod that contains seeds that can be dried or eaten fresh. Peas are one of the few members of the legume family that are sold in the fresh form. Peas originated thousands of years ago and were initially consumed in the dried state until the 16th century. They came to this country a few hundred years ago and were very popular in President Jefferson’s garden where it has been reported he grew more than 30 varieties. Among the many varieties of peas are English garden peas, snow peas, and sugar snap peas (a cross
between the snow and garden variety). I do like all varieties of peas but seem to always think of the classic garden pea as my first choice. The French refer to the sugar snap as mange-tout (eat it all) since that is exactly what you do.
Peas are often recognized for their high starch/carbohydrate content but they have many nutritional benefits which include significant amounts of vitamins K and A, manganese, fiber, and folate. They are moderate on the glycemic index (the ability for a certain food to increase blood sugar levels) in spite of their high starch content. Peas are also considered a good source of vitamin C, protein and other B vitamins. Peas especially as well as some other legumes do contain a specific plant nutrient called coumestrol that has been showing positive results in its protective role against stomach cancer in studies done recently in Mexico. They also have other protective anti-inflammatory benefits and antioxidants (saponins, ferulic acid, caffeic acid, and epicatechins, to name a few) that have shown to be preventive against numerous chronic health problems such as diabetes and heart disease.
Peas are available during the cool weather months from early spring until the heat of the summer hits and then again in the fall, if the weather is cooperative. At the farm stand or at the Co-op, select peas that do not have large pods and avoid ones with blemishes or browning on the ends. The larger the pod the less tender the peas inside and the same holds true for the other varieties, snow and sugar snap. Use peas soon after buying them since they do toughen with age. There are many ways to use all varieties of peas but the most common way I use them are in the raw form in salads or just plain. I use sugar snaps in the same way and snow peas I cut up and put in salads or use them at the end of a stir fry to provide some vibrant green color and delicious sweet taste.