By Beverly Barbour
Peas and pods--the early taste of summer
We have been eating peas for thousands of years, though mostly cooked with grains in porridges, ground into flour for bread or boiled in winter soups. The passion for eating them green is relatively recent. It is said to have sprouted up in Holland during the early 1600s, when breeders began to create garden varieties with sweeter flavor. The fad for shelling peas caught on at the French court and from there the vines spread to England where raising them continues today as a national pastime.
George Washington and Thomas Jefferson vied with one another to see who would eat the earliest spring peas. We are lucky today because constant breeding and ingenuity has brought the once luxury food down to everyman's level. The fact that peas freeze so well, makes them a commodity, no longer a luxury.
Peas have differing personalities
1. Sugar peas, snap peas, sugar snap peas (3 names but one type)
Today, we have readily available a number of variations on the pea theme. There are the kind where we eat the whole thing, pod and all. These are called sugar peas, snap peas, or sugar snap peas. To prepare them for cooking pull off the thread that runs from top to bottom along the edge of each pea but don't shell them. Enjoy the pod as well as the tiny peas within.
2. Shelling fat peas, also called English peas
Here we have the plump, buttery, shelling peas. Open them up and use your thumb to release each pea. Discard the tough pods. Get all peas fresh; because the longer they stand away from the mother vine, the more their sugar is converted into starch.
3. Petits pois are tiny peas taken from the pod
The third variation in the world of green peas is the petits pois, which are a dwarf variety. They are sometimes been called French Peas, because of their slightly snobby French name, of course. These too, are most often shelled which makes them the most expensive of all three types.
Green Snap Peas with Green Mint
Wherever they catch salmon peas are most often the vegetable of choice to serve with the pink-fleshed fish. Mint adds bright color and accents the natural sweetness of the peas. Makes 6 servings.
3/4 pound sugar snap peas, trimmed
Steam snap peas, covered, for 2 minutes. Add green peas to the pan; steam 2 minutes longer. Combine peas, butter and salt in a large bowl; toss gently to coat. Sprinkle with mint.
Two Peas in a Pasta
This does call for a cup of heavy cream but if you want to lower calories and don't mind changing the flavor a bit you can substitute low-fat sour cream. Also, you can substitute 1 package (10-ounces) frozen peas (not thawed) for shelled fresh peas. Pass extra Parmesan or other sharp Italian cheese when serving. Makes 6 servings.
1 pound dried egg fettuccine
Cook fettuccine according to package directions. Meanwhile, cook leeks in butter in a heavy skillet, stirring, until tender, about 5 minutes. Add broth, cream and water; simmer, uncovered, about 5 minutes. Stir shelled peas into sauce and simmer 3 minutes. Stir in snow peas, salt and pepper and simmer until peas are tender, about 5 minutes. Drain pasta and add to the sauce, tossing to combine. Sprinkle parsley, zest and Parmesan on top and toss again. Season with pepper.
Summer Pea Soup
You can use either frozen petite peas or peas fresh from the pod. This can be made in the wink of an eye and because the peas are whole it is a completely different looking and tasting soup than any made from dried peas. Makes 4 to 6 servings.
1 cup grated Parmesan cheese
In a bowl, beat Parmesan cheese, butter, lemon peel, nutmeg and egg yolks until blended. Stir in cream. Meanwhile in a saucepan combine chicken broth and pasta. Cover and bring to a boil over high heat. Add peas, cover, reduce heat and simmer until tender to bite, about 1 minute for frozen peas but about 6 minutes for fresh. Mix about 2 cups of hot soup into cheese mixture, then stir cheese mixture into pan. Remove from heat, ladle into bowls and sprinkle with nutmeg (if desired). Salt to taste.
Ten Minute Sauteed Peas and Scallions
Cooking the peas very quickly in a little butter lets them retain their flavor, color and texture. Makes 4 to 6 servings.
2 tablespoons butter
Melt butter and add peas and scallions. Cook, stirring, until heated through, about 3 minutes. Season with salt and pepper.
Tempting as it is, don't eat all of your fresh peas raw.