"The question of peas continues. The anticipation of eating them, the pleasure of having eaten them, and the joy of eating them again are the three subjects that our princes have been discussing for four days ... It has become a fashion - indeed, a passion."
The excerpt above, taken from a letter to the Cardinal of Noailles and written by Madame de Maintenon in 1696 serves to illustrate how people were once inordinately excited by what is really a pretty commonplace vegetable. Although these little green wonders are today commonly available in their fresh state, this was definitely not always the case.
The common garden pea is native to Western Asia and the Middle East, and evidence of its domestication dates well back to around 6000 BC, a scant millennium following that other ancient legume - the lentil. Peas travelled early to the Mediterranean, China and India and the Greeks and Romans were noted consumers of the pulse.
Ancient pea-eaters did not eat the fresh vegetable that we know today. Up until quite recently peas were always dried for prolonged storage before being cooked. This method of preservation survives today - albeit for culinary reasons and not out of necessity - in dried pea based dishes such as pea and ham soup and pease pudding.
In 1660, the head of the household staff for the Countess of Soissons, Audiger traveled to Italy on a culinary fact finding mission. During his travels he came across fresh peas - what the French would later call petit pois. Upon his return these fresh green delights were so well received that they were eventually introduced to the court of Louis XIV and a major fad ensued, as is reinforced by the opening quote to this piece.
In a display of true Gallic one-up-man-ship, the French culinary bible, Larousse Gastronomique tries to usurp this momentous development by stating "...Taillevent had already made known his recipe for cretonnée de pois..." There is no disputing however, that the Italians, who are well known culinary innovators - table cutlery, ice-cream and European tomato consumption being among them - were enjoying fresh peas for close to a century prior to Audiger's discovery.
There are three main varieties of peas, plus a few pea-related products commonly available, each with their own unique charms and purpose.
Common or garden peas Pisum sativum are the regular pea you will find in the pod at the greengrocer, or frozen in bags at the supermarket. Fresh peas in the pod need to be shelled before use and cook in a brief period of time, only a matter of minutes. The pod for this variety is inedible¹. Common peas are available fresh all year round with their peak eating season being mid-spring to early summer.
Snap peas P. sativum var. sativum, which are also simply called sugar snap peas or sugar peas are a delightful variation. Unlike regular peas, the entire pod is edible; the only preparation required is to remove the calyx where the pod was attached to the plant. Relatively new on the commercial vegetable scene – they are a hybrid produced in the 1970s between snow peas and a malformed common pea with thick pod walls and tightly packed pods. They are slightly smaller than regular pea pods, about 5 or 6 cm in length and contain small peas. snap peas are delicious, with a fabulous crunchy texture, vivid pale-green colour and a sensational sugar-sweet flavour. The season for these peas is shorter than regular peas and they are definitely at their peak eating in late spring to early summer.
Snow peas P. sativum var. macrocarpon, which are sometimes called Chinese peas and also commonly by their French name, mange-tout, are also entirely edible - pod and all. They require similar preparation to sugar snap peas, simply remove the calyx end, along with the string that runs the length of the pod. They are similar in size to snap peas, but are flat and contain tiny, almost undeveloped peas. Snow peas are available most of the year with a peak season of early spring. They have a mild sweet taste, yet not as sweet as sugar snaps. This variety also cooks very quickly.
Dried peas are sold in small packets at the supermarket and in bulk at health food stores. They are simply shelled and dried common peas, yet I have heard that a variation on the common plant, P. sativum, which has a higher starch and lower sugar content, are used for drying peas. They are available in split or whole forms, with a colour choice of yellow or green. These peas are obviously available all year round, but try to purchase them from a shop with a high turnover, as ancient dried peas take an eternity to cook and can be mealy.
Snow pea shoots, which are a Chinese delicacy known as dau miu are the growing tips and shoots of the snow pea plant, although if you grow common peas or sugar snap peas, their shoots can be used in the same manner. They are gloriously attractive and tender tendrils that are prized by the Chinese for their mild sweet taste and delicate texture. They are fabulous in stir-fried dishes as well as soups and salads. These are generally only available in specialist Asian greengrocers, so if you don't have one nearby, the only choice is to grow your own pea vine.
Preparation and cooking
Depending on the recipe's country of origin, there are several different methods of cooking peas. The French tend to cook peas longer, often in a flavoursome braise of stock, shallots and bacon. The English prefer their peas cooked more rapidly, so they retain a bright green colour and crunch - often with the classic pairing of mint. As mentioned above, common peas need to be shelled before use. This is a simple, but sometimes tedious business. Split open the pea pods along the rounded edge and run your finger inside the pod to dislodge the peas. Many recipes call for a shelled pea weight and this can be confusing when weighing whole peas in the pod. Peas have a pretty woeful yield, losing around two-thirds in pod weight. If your recipe calls for 500 gm (1 lb) podded peas, you will need to buy 1.5 kg (3 lbs) of the pods.
I always prefer to boil fresh peas briefly, 3-4 minutes maximum. Some older and larger peas may take a minute more. Cook them in plenty of boiling water and do not add any salt, as this will make the little darlings tough - add any salt after they are cooked. Peas are the one exception to my "always buy fresh" rule. For certain applications such as fresh pea soups and pea purees I find that frozen peas are not only perfectly acceptable, but a heck of a lot more convenient. Good quality frozen peas will use tender spring peas, cook them quickly, then snap freeze them. They are one vegetable that survives the process with any dignity. For some strange reason, the French seem to adore mushy² canned peas. Unless you have a strange addiction to this stuff (or you are French) I would advise you to avoid canned peas.
Snow peas and sugar snaps must be cooked very quickly, and without exception. As far as I am aware, these peas are not available frozen³. There would be little need as they are so easy to prepare. If you are boiling these peas, cook them for a slightly shorter period to regular peas; 2 minutes for snaps and 1 minute for snows. These two varieties also stir-fry wonderfully. Add them to the wok towards the end of cooking, along with any other tender greens.
Snow pea shoots need little in the way of preparation, save for a quick tub to remove any white oil that Chinese gardeners are fond of using. Check carefully for any opportunistic insects and bugs that love to munch on these tender shoots. If stir-frying, add them at the very last moment and let any residual heat wilt them. They really cook in a matter of seconds.
Dried peas must be prepared in much the same manner as all dried pulses. Wash them well to remove any dirt and grit and check for small stones. When making soups that require several hours cooking, such as pea and ham, there is no need to soak dried peas. If your dish will be cooking these peas for less than an hour, it is best to soak them overnight in plenty of cold water.
¹ Gritchka has found otherwise to my experiences of inedible garden pea pods. He tells me that "...The pod of the common pea is delicious, but too stringy to be eaten whole. You need to chew the good flesh off the carcase..."
² Teiresias has correctly reminded me that the English are not only partial to fresh, green cooked peas, but also love nothing better than good 'ole mushy peas to go with their fish and chips. Us Aussies are not immune this type of culinary oddity. At Sydney's famous Harry's Cafe de Wheels, hot meat pies are topped with mushy peas, and at Adelaide's infamous pie carts, meat pies are served floating in hot, mushy pea soup. Both have their bizarre charms.
³ momomom tells me that snow and snap peas are available frozen in Maryland, USA - and perhaps they are in your area as well. Check and see, but I would advise always going for fresh if they are available.