Tender fresh green peas in the pod may
soon be a vegetable available only to home gardeners. You can find
un-shelled peas in many markets during spring and early summer, but
they are usually old. The pods are fibrous, and the peas are sometimes
so tough that no amount of cooking will render them tender enough to
If you have ever eaten garden-fresh peas, you surely became an instant
addict who takes advantages of every opportunity to try to re-create
that initial sublime experience. It will not be often repeated, and the
experience will have spoiled you for shelled peas in any other form.
There is almost nothing as tender and sweet as tiny, freshly picked
peas, quickly cooked and tossed with a little butter and fresh mint.
Very fresh shelled peas can be sprinkled raw over salads too.
Green peas, or English peas, are legume meant to be shelled just before
they are eaten. Their season is very short, usually late May to very
early July at most. Shelling peas are like corn. As soon as they are
picked, the sugars begin to turn to starch, and only a few hours from
vine to pot can cause the loss of much of their sweetness. Older peas
become tough and unappetizing. For this reason, most of the crop in the
United States is preserved, either by canning or freezing. While canned
baby peas do have a certain following, I think they beat no resemblance
to the fresh vegetables. Frozen peas, on the other hand, are flash
frozen only hours out of the field and, if handled properly, can be a
fairly good substitute for fresh-especially the tiny baby peas that
are increasingly available in the freezer.
The pod of green, or English, peas is not edible. While it isn't
harmful, the lining of the pod is fibrous and unappealing.
Occasionally, one or two empty pods can be added to the pot during
cooking for added flavor, but they should be removed before serving the
finished dish. There are, however, two varieties of fresh peas now on
the market that are meant to be eaten whole, pod and all.
Snow peas, also known as sugar peas-or mange touts in France;
literally, "eat everything"-have been around for quite a while. Most
of us are familiar with them because they are a staple ingredient in
Lately, they have been increasingly available fresh in greengrocers,
and now also appear in many supermarkets. These long, thin, and almost
flat pods are crisp and full of flavor. Picked while the little peas
are still immature, they are meant to be cooked quickly, for only 1 or
2 minutes. Once they have been topped, tailed and strung, snow peas can
also be sliced or left whole, and added raw to salads and crudites
Sugar snap peas, the darlings of the restaurant scene right now, are a
wonderful cross between English and snow peas. Although they seem to
have been around for quite a while, it was only in the 1970s that they
were bred to perfection. Unlike snow peas, the peas themselves are well
developed inside the thin, crisp pod. These are plump little green
pods, full of flavor and, when not overcooked, snap. Like snow peas,
they should be cooked quickly and served white they are still quite
crisp. They can be strung and tossed raw into salads or added to cold
Snow peas are now available nearly all year long fresh, and they are
also found frozen. The frozen variety are limp and frequently dark
colored and are really only a last resort for adding at the final
moment to a stir-fry or vegetable medley.
Sugar snap peas have about the same fresh season as English peas, but
they seem to stay fresh longer, since they are also enjoyed for the
flavor and texture of the pod as well as the interior pea. Some
companies are now selling frozen sugar snaps, which are infinitely
better than frozen snow peas, but cannot be substituted for raw sugar
snaps. Blanched (boiled briefly, rinsed in cold water, and drained)
before freezing, they become slightly limp when thawed. I frequently
use them in the winter, but once they are thawed, I only reheat them
quickly and do not let them cook further.
The Chinese have long known about pea shoots. These fragile but
delectable tendrils and first leaves of the pea runners, with or
without the blossoms, are beginning to appear on the menus of chic
restaurants. And specialty markets will sometimes have them for sale in
bulk. They can be extremely expensive, but if you are serving them raw,
a little goes a long way. If you are going to be cooking them, consider
adding them to stir- fries or light sautes, perhaps along with snow
peas or sugar snap peas to reinforce the pea theme.
If you do not find the shoots locally, try to persuade a gardener
friend to let you graze through his or her pea patch in the early
spring. Any kind of edible pea will do. Snip off the tendrils and first
few leaves, along with a blossom or two if you like. Don't worry, the
plant will produce more. Take the shoots home and wash and dry them
very gently. Add them to any mixed green salad for a very fresh pea
flavor-delicious when combined with a little peppery watercress along
with some tiny garden fresh lettuce leaves. Do not add dressing until
the last minutes as the shoots wilt almost immediately.
When adding pea shoots to stir-fries or sautes, add only 30 seconds or
so before serving. A very short cooking time is enough to wilt them
slightly while preserving the lovely bright green color and fresh pea
Fresh peas are an excellent source of protein, carbohydrate, and fiber.
They are low in fat and high in vitamin A.