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Cooking with Fresh Green Peas, Snow Peas, Sugar Peas, Pea Pods, Sugar Snap Peas, English Peas and Pea Shoots

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 eat.

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 Chinese stir-fries.

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 platters.

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 vegetable platters.

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 flavor.

Fresh peas are an excellent source of protein, carbohydrate, and fiber. They are low in fat and high in vitamin A.

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