Peas very well might be my favorite vegetable – they at least make the top five – and with the arrival of spring, fresh peas are available in abundance. While I almost always have a bag of frozen peas on standby to add to soups, toss with pasta or simply serve as a side topped with a pat of butter and a sprinkle of salt, freshly picked peas from one’s garden or the farmers market are non plus ultra.
Peas are typically one of the first crops planted at the start of spring, when there’s still a chill in the air. As such, they should start showing up in farmers markets early and they can be available into the fall, depending on where you live. With the welcoming of fresh pea season, here’s what you need to know about how to make the most of the bounty.
Types of peas
The vegetable comes in three varieties: shelling, snow and snap.
Shelling peas. As the name implies, this type needs to be freed of their inedible pods before consumption. The inner seeds, sometimes called garden, sweet or English peas, are what many think of when we encounter the word “pea” without any other modifier.
Snow peas. Part of the appeal of snow peas is that the pod is edible. These flat pods are picked when the seeds within are just beginning to take shape, but if allowed to mature further, the pod becomes tough and inedible, requiring the seeds to be shelled to be eaten. Another thing to keep in mind is that some varieties have a fibrous string running along the seam of the pod that needs to be removed before consumption.
Snap peas. A cross between shelling and snow peas, snap peas have an audible snap when fresh and broken in half. Like snow peas, the pods are also edible and can sometimes have seam fibers that impede immediate enjoyment.
Purchasing, storing and using fresh peas
As with most vegetables: the fresher, the better. With peas in particular, their sweetness starts to fade as soon as they’re picked. As such, it’s best to use them within just a few days for maximum flavor. (Though you could blanch and freeze the fresh peas to prolong their life.) In selecting specimens, reach for firm, green pods, keeping in mind that smaller peas are sweeter and more tender than larger ones.
For shelling peas, wait to free the seeds from their prison until just before using. To do so, crack open the pod with either your fingers or a paring knife and run your thumb along the inside to guide the seeds into a bowl. If a recipe calls for freshly shelled peas, a good general guideline to know is that 1 pound of peas in their pods yields approximately 1 cup of shelled peas.
Fresh peas can be quite firm when raw, and the cooking time to get them tender will vary depending on size and age. They can also turn from pale to bright green when cooked, lending a burst of color to whatever dish they’re part of.
With snow and snap peas, trim the ends and remove seam strings (if present) before eating them however you see fit. In addition to stir-fries, snow peas can also shine in salads, either whole or cut into strips on the bias. (The same can be said of snap peas in salads.) I love eating whole snap peas raw as part of a full crudite platter or simply paired with hummus so I can appreciate their crunch in all its glory, but they are delicious blanched or quickly sauteed, too.
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