Season’s Eatings: Peas

I am particularly amused and charmed by food that grows in its own “wrapper”. Bananas. Clementines. Avocados. Grapefruit. Peas. It is nice to be able to transport a snack with you and not have to lug its container around afterward. Not only that, there is no waste involved since said “container” is compostable.

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Snow, Sugar Snap & English Peas

Since it’s spring, let’s explore peas, a handy nutrient-packed treat that is naturally self-contained. Peas are an excellent source of vitamin K, protein, iron, B vitamins, folic acid and starch. Pretty impressive, considering their size. The unique phytonutrients in green peas also provide us with key antioxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits, as well as a phytochemical called coumestrol, which has been linked to lowering the risk of stomach cancer.

Not only are peas good for you, they are also good for the soil they grow in. The symbiosis between the bacteria that live in their roots and the nitrogen from the air that makes peas rich in protein is an effective process for replenishing the nitrogen levels in the humus. For this reason, peas have been grown as rotation crops since Roman times. Peas and other legumes are native to the Fertile Crescent… perhaps that’s why the Crescent was so Fertile.

Speaking of Roman times, “A remarkable sign of [the pea's] status in the ancient world is the fact that each of the four major legumes known to Rome lent its name to a prominent Roman family: Fabius comes from the fava bean, Lentulus from the lentil, Piso from the Pea and Cicero – the most distinguished of them all – from the chick pea. No other food group has been so honored!” [Harold McGee, On Food and Cooking, p.483]

Peas are in the one of the most important families in the human diet, second only to grasses, and have been developed since the 17th century, beginning in Holland and spreading to England. Though peas are available widely now, they were a luxury food for quite some time. Kind of makes you think differently about a bag of frozen peas, doesn’t it? Especially since there was originally no such thing as a “pea”. Peas were originally called “pease”, which comes from the latin “pisum”. You may remember the nursery rhyme about “pease porridge hot” – that is actually the correct ye-olde name of pea. Each little ball was a “pease”. However, over time, people retrofitted the word “pease” to “peas”, assumed it was plural, and invented the word “pea” to refer to just one tiny sphere of the pease pod.  If you’ve been following along, you may have already seen this interesting factoid in the footnote section of our previous post The Secret Life of Beans1

Shelling peas takes some time, but I rather enjoy the mindlessness of it, and prefer to accomplish the task outside, where I can take in the fresh air and the soft springtime sun. Something about shelling peas, snapping green beans, husking corn and other such repetitive preparatory kitchen tasks presents the opportunity to slow down and enjoy letting your mind wander, or partake in some casual conversation. There’s also the business of what to do with all of the shells once you’ve liberated all of the peas. Your best choices are to either compost them or to keep them in the freezer until you whip up your next round of vegetable stock.

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Peas are in the legume family, which gets its name from the Latin legere, "to gather". which is appropriate, since that's what you have to do when shelled peas roll away.

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Shelled English peas, sautéed with yellow and orange carrots as a simple side dish

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Shelled sugar snap peas in a spring vegetable pasta dish, including fresh homemade fusilli, yellow tree oyster and nameko mushrooms, carrots, chives, fava beans and chive flowers.

If you find shelling beans too tedious, consider that we eat the seeds of a great number of legumes, but the pods of only a few. One of those few happens to be the pea pod. Sugar snap and snow peas are categorized as “mange tout”, French for ”eat everything”. No, really: OM NOM NOM. You don’t need to do anything at all to prepare them, but this time around I decided to try roasting some sugar snap peas. I tossed the peas in olive oil and sprinkled them with salt and pepper and then roasted them at 450°F for 10 minutes. While they were roasting, I made an Asian-inspired dipping sauce involving tamari soy sauce, rice vinegar and sesame oil. Once the roasting was complete, I sprinkled the peas with some toasted black sesame seeds. This springtime snack was gobbled up in no time.

Peas are one of those ubiquitous foods of spring that are often overlooked as plain and ordinary, but are actually quite interesting. I’m hoping to find even more ways to celebrate spring and its distinctive culinary offerings. And if you reported back to us with your own explorations and photos? Well, that would make us as happy as two peas in a pod.

  1. Black-eyed peas and pigeon peas are actually not peas at all, but beans. The black-eyed pea is actually an African relative of the mung bean, and the pigeon pea is native to India.

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