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In Season: English peas a sweet treat for spring

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Here’s how lucky we are. In much of the country, peas aren’t planted until St. Paddy’s Day on March 17. But here it is the end of March, and fresh English peas have been in our stores for several weeks already. They’re also a reminder that spring is here!

The moment peas are picked, they begin to lose their sweetness and garden-fresh flavor. So if you want to experience the pleasure of peas fresh from the vine, think about growing your own. Peas right off the vine are incomparably better than either fresh store-bought or frozen peas.

If growing peas is not happening for you, the new crop of English peas at markets like Oliver’s, Whole Foods, Pacific Market or Andy’s will still be delicious if you follow some guidelines.

Look for vivid green pods with a glossy surface, no yellowing and juicy stems where they were picked rather than dried stem ends. Most importantly, don’t select any fat pods. Fat pods mean the peas are mature and crowding each other. They will have lost almost all their sweetness and become mealy.

Look for pods that hold peas that aren’t touching each other. These pods will be slender to medium-slender.

Now take a pea and squeeze it between your thumb and forefinger. It should mash, rather than split into two halves. If it does mash, you’ve got the peas at their peak. Small peas are sweet peas.

When talking about peas and sweetness, it’s important to know that English peas have a toxic cousin called “sweet pea.” Its botanical name is lathyrus odorata, while edible English peas are pisum sativum and are not even in the same genus as sweet peas.

English peas are remarkably wholesome — the entire plant is edible. But the beautiful and fragrant ornamental sweet pea is mildly toxic and can cause rashes and vomiting if eaten in any quantity. Don’t be fooled by the name “sweet pea” and the pods that look like small garden pea pods.

Small English peas don’t need long cooking. If you’re steaming them, three minutes or so is all they need. If you’re boiling or stir-frying them, a couple of minutes should do it.

Peas are versatile partners with a wide range of other ingredients. Mushrooms, nutmeg, onions and rice — especially risotto — pair beautifully with peas.

As with most seeds, and especially the legumes (peas, beans, lentils, etc.), peas are very nutritious. A half cup of boiled peas contains 67 calories but no cholesterol, 12 grams of carbohydrates, 4 to 5 grams of protein, 2 or 3 grams of dietary fiber, 13% of the daily requirement of vitamin C and many more nutrients. That’s a lot of nutrition for a half-cup of any food.

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This is a classic French dish and certainly one of the most delicious ways to eat cooked peas. The French typically use petits pois, but English peas can also be used (just don’t mention it to the French).

Peas Braised with Lettuce and Onions

Serves 2 or 3

8 small white onions

1 head buttercrunch lettuce (similar to Bibb)

1/3 cup water

3 tablespoons unsalted butter

¼ teaspoon salt

— Fresh ground black pepper

2 cups shelled fresh English peas

6 stems of parsley tied in a bouquet

1 tablespoon white sugar

Boil the onions for 5 minutes in water and set aside. When cool, remove their skins and cut a small X in their root ends so they cook in time with the other ingredients.

Cut the lettuce head into quarters and gently tie each quarter with white butcher string so it holds together while being cooked.

Put the water, butter, salt and a grind or two of black pepper into a large, heavy saucepan. Bring to a boil, then add the peas, tossing them so they’re covered with the liquid, and reduce heat to low.

Snuggle the parsley down among the peas. Place the lettuce quarters over the peas and baste with the liquid. Sprinkle the onions over the lettuce. Place a bowl over the top of the saucepan, concave side up, to act as a lid and place a handful of ice cubes in it. Bring the pan to a slow boil. The steam will condense on the under surface of the cold bowl and rain back on the contents of the saucepan.

Cook slowly for about 20 minutes, until the peas are very tender. Remove the bowl several times during the cooking and gently toss the ingredients so they cook evenly.

When the peas are tender, most of the cooking liquid should have evaporated. Remove the parsley and the strings from the lettuce.

Remove the lettuce quarters and place them around the edge of a heated serving dish. Pour the peas and onions into the center of the serving dish. Serve immediately, while steaming hot.

Jeff Cox is a Kenwood-based food and garden writer. Reach him at jeffcox@sonic.net

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