In Season: English peas a sweet treat for spring
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.
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)