Eat your peas: It's prime time for the garden pearls

Fresh is best, and some don't need shelling.

Posted: March 31, 2011

An ancient vegetable is finding legions of new fans as cooks rediscover the joy of peas.

Most of us grew up with frozen, canned, or dried split peas. Shelling peas by hand, it seemed, was just too much work.

But the flavor of fresh peas rewards those who take on that time-consuming chore. And some peas need no shelling - they're eaten pod and all.

An early-spring staple for millennia, peas are at their best, and sweetest, just plucked from the vine. Ask any gardener who grows peas; they often get munched before they reach the kitchen. The reason: Peas' sugar content is highest the moment they're picked. Once off the vine, that sugar rapidly converts to starch.

The best time to enjoy fresh peas is now, as a new crop is hitting stores, farmers markets, and backyard gardens. Peas also complement other spring vegetables such as asparagus, spinach, and, of course, carrots.

Humanity's connection to peas is practically in our DNA. Archaeologists have traced their consumption almost 8,000 years to Syria, Turkey, and Jordan, where peas grew wild. Ancient Egyptians ate peas as early as 4800 B.C. Peas also have thousands of years of culinary history in India, Pakistan, and southern parts of Russia.

Meanwhile, edible pod peas, snow peas, became a staple throughout Asia.

By the Middle Ages, dried peas were a major source of protein for most of Europe. It wasn't until the 17th and 18th centuries that the Italians, French, and English fell in love with immature fresh green peas.

Known as piselli novelli and with their seeds imported from Genoa, these early spring peas became the rage of the court of France's Louis XIV. Ladies smuggled them up to their bedrooms and ate raw peas like candy. The French called it "pea madness."

The English called it inspiration, developing new varieties, known as English or garden peas, meant to be eaten as fresh as possible. The colonists brought them to America. According to his garden records, Thomas Jefferson grew at least 30 cultivars of peas.

All these peas contribute to a global menu of possibilities. Peas mixed with mint taste very French - or Turkish, depending on the other ingredients. A pea salad with cheese and mayonnaise makes for a proper British picnic. In Spain, peas combine with ham for classic tapas. Pea soup variations are common from Sweden to Iran. (And fresh pea soup seems a world away from its split pea cousins.)

Peas are used as part of the batter in the Japanese savory pancakes called okonomiyaki, Middle Eastern rice pilaf, Chinese stir-fry (with shrimp and ginger), Italian soups and pastas (with ham and baby artichokes), filling for Indian samosas, and Vietnamese stir-fry with nam pla.

Obviously, peas get around. But not always all the way to the kitchen.

Pea primer

Spring green peas fall into three groups.

Shelled or English peas: These are plucked from their pods, which tend to be tough and fibrous. Look for firm peas of uniform size and color, but not too big. Larger peas tend to be older and tougher. The pods should be crisp and shiny. One pound of peas in their pods yields 1 to 11/4 cups of shelled peas.

Snow or Asian peas: Not as sweet as their seedy counterparts, these have flat pods with tiny, immature peas. They're made to eat whole or sliced diagonally in half. Look for firm, crisp pods, not limp.

Sugar snap peas: They're also known as mange-tout ("eat all"). A recent hybrid, these peas blend the best of both snow and English varieties. The pods are edible, and the peas inside are nice, round, and sweet. Look for firm, crisp, vivid-green pods that "snap." These are best when lightly steamed for five minutes or stir-fried.

Nutrition facts: One cup of shelled green peas has 110 calories; one cup of snow peas, only 35 calories. Sugar snap peas have about 45 to 55 calories per cup, depending on the maturity of the peas inside the edible pods. All three are high in Vitamin C, but shelled peas also offer a lot of Vitamin A.


Keema Turkey With Peas and Mint

Makes 4 servings

2 tablespoons canola oil

1 large yellow onion, diced

2 cloves garlic, minced

1 tablespoon grated fresh ginger

1 pound lean ground turkey

1 tablespoon garam masala

1 teaspoon turmeric

2 tablespoons tomato paste

1/2 cup water

1 cup fresh (or thawed

frozen) peas

 1/4 cup plain Greek-style yogurt

Salt, to taste

2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro

1/2 tablespoon chopped fresh mint

4 large naan or other

flatbreads, warmed

1. In a large skillet over medium-high, heat the oil. Add the onion and garlic, then saute for 5 minutes.

2. Add the ginger and cook for 1 minute.

3. Add the turkey and cook until the meat starts to brown, about 7 to 8 minutes.

4. Add the garam masala and turmeric, then saute for 1 minute.

5. Add the tomato paste and water and heat, stirring to mix, for another minute.

6. Add the peas, then cover and cook for 3 minutes. Uncover the pan, then stir in the yogurt. Season with salt, then stir in the cilantro and mint.

7. Serve with naan.

Per serving: 477 calories, 32 grams protein, 47 grams carbohydrates, xx grams sugar, 18 grams fat, 65 milligrams cholesterol, 607 milligrams sodium, 7 grams dietary fiber

.


Capri Lemon Pasta With Peas, Fava Beans, and Asparagus

Makes 4 to 6 servings

11/4 cups heavy cream

Juice and zest of 2 lemons

1 bunch asparagus, ends trimmed, cut into 1-inch pieces

1 pound fresh fava beans, shelled (or 51/2 ounces frozen fava beans or shelled edamame)

One 14-ounce package fresh pasta (linguine, tagliatelle, or spaghetti)

1 pound fresh peas, shelled (or 51/2 ounces frozen)

4 tablespoons mascarpone

1 cup grated Parmesan cheese

Small bunch fresh basil, leaves torn

Salt and pepper, to taste

1. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil.

2. Meanwhile, in a small saucepan over medium-low, combine cream and lemon zest. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer for 3 minutes.

3. Once water has boiled, add asparagus, fava beans, pasta, and peas. Cook for 3 minutes, or until the pasta is al dente. Reserve 1/4 cup of the pasta cooking water, then drain the pasta and vegetables.

4. Pour warmed cream and lemon zest into the pasta cooking pot. Add lemon juice, mascarpone, and reserved pasta cooking water.

5. Return to a boil, then add pasta and vegetables.

6. Add the Parmesan, basil, salt, and pepper. Toss well.

-From The Modern Vegetarian by Maria Elia (Kyle Books)

Per serving (based on 6): 551 calories, 20 grams protein, 54 grams carbohydrates, 8 grams sugar, 29 grams fat, 93 milligrams cholesterol, 517 milligrams sodium, 6 grams dietary fiber.

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