Garden peas are a delightfully delicious member of the legume family and one of the oldest vegetables in the world. Peas are tasty whether eaten raw, cooked, in stir- fry, or in salads. There are several varieties of peas including the shell pea, the snap pea, and the snow pea. Each of these has it’s own special characteristics but all share the sweet taste known to the pea.
The shell pea, also known as the English pea or garden pea, refers to a group of peas that grow in a pod. These pods must be opened to release the peas for cooking and eating. Opening and removing these peas from the pod is referred to as “shelling”, hence the name shell peas. Many people enjoy these peas straight out of the shell eaten raw. The pods are inedible. Shell peas are a cool weather plant and can be planted before the last frost. Generally, the soil should be at least 45 F and not wet or muddy. Shell peas can be bushing or vining or have wrinkled seeds or smooth seeds depending on the variety. The wrinkled seed variety tend to be sweeter and are preferred for home use while the smooth seed kind contain more starch. The peas should be picked while tender and rounded in the pod yet still immature. The pods in the lower portion of the plant mature the earliest. As the peas mature they become hard and starchy. Processing these peas immediately after picking produces the best flavor since their quality and sweetness begins to deteriorate as soon as they have been picked. There are many pea shellers on the market today ranging from manual to electric models. Consider using one of these if you have a large yield of peas. This will lessen the time from the vine to the freezer and preserve the sweetness of the pea.
Another form of pea is the snap pea. This pea is a favorite because it takes so little to prepare them. The snap pea has a low fiber pod that can be snapped and eaten along with the immature peas inside. They are delicious eaten raw or cooked, although some varieties have strings that must be removed before cooking. These should be picked as the peas begin to plump in the pod but before they mature completely. As the snap pea matures, the pod becomes higher in fiber making it tough and inedible. Like the shell pea, the snap pea is a cool weather vegetable. It can be planted earlier in the season than most other garden vegetables. In fact, early plantings usually produce a higher yield than later plantings. The snap pea should be harvested every 1-3 days. This will assure that the plant keeps producing peas. If the peas are not harvested regularly, the plant will stop producing.
A form of pea that has recently reached popularity in the United States is the snow pea. The snow pea is small and grows in a flat pod. It is commonly used in Asian cooking and looks much like the shell of a butter bean. Snow peas are sweet and tender and both the shell and the peas are edible. They are delicious in a stir-fry dish or a salad. Like other peas, they are also planted in the cool weather with soil of about 45. After germination, they will produce in about 60 days. Snow peas must be picked at least every other day. If they are allowed to get plump, the pod must be discarded. Fiber begins to build up in the pod as it matures, making it tough and inedible. Snow peas are harvested when they have grown full length but are still flat. This is usually 5-7 days after flowering. Remove fiber, stems, and blossom ends during preparation. Unlike other peas, snow pea pods do not deteriorate quickly. They can be stored in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks. Pea pods loose their crispness during cooking. Since they are high in sugar content, they brown quickly. When using them in a stir-fry recipe, be sure that the heat is not too intense.
All peas are better when prepared immediately after harvesting. To get the full flavor of any pea, they should be cooked fresh from the garden. This is not always possible with larger gardens. Peas freeze nicely, loosing very little of their original sweetness if done promptly and correctly. They can be stored for a couple of days in the refrigerator until there is time to freeze them. The blanching method is the best way to freeze peas although some people freeze them fresh without any preparation. Blanching is the process of heating the peas up in order to kill bacteria and stop enzyme production. Since peas are high in sugar content, enzyme production will cause the sugars to turn to starch. To blanch peas, they should be placed in boiling water for about 2 minutes, removed, and plunged into cold ice water for about 5 minutes. This stops the cooking process. Drain the peas, pack them into labeled freezer bags, and freeze them quickly. Blanched peas will keep in the freezer for 9-12 months. It is recommended that un-blanched, fresh frozen peas should be eaten within four weeks of freezing. Frozen peas do not have to be cooked after thawing. They can be added to soups, stews, and salads or they can be heated briefly before serving.
Peas have gained popularity as a health food in recent years. Raw peas are eaten as snacks in lunches or put into fresh salads. Green garden peas are a source of protein and iron. They also have insoluble fiber, which lowers cholesterol, reducing the risk of stroke and heart attack. Although snap peas and snow peas contain less protein than green garden peas, they are high in iron and contain vitamin C which boost the immune system.
Peas are a superior vegetable. They are easily grown, have large yields, are relatively easy to preserve, are an ingredient in an assortment of foods, provide nutrition, and have an excellent sweet taste that can be enjoyed all year. What vegetable could be more perfect than that?