Palate-Pleasing Peas

Fresh peas from the garden are a sweet and nutritious treat.

| February/March 2005

Fresh or frozen, peas are among the most versatile of all vegetables. They are naturals for Asian stir-fried dishes laced with ginger, garlic and sesame oil, and their vibrant green adds color to pasta dishes. Peas also can be used to make a delicious puréed soup, or you can enjoy them in fruit-and-vegetable salads composed of peas and pineapple or orange sections, dressed with a sesame-scented vinaigrette. And of course there are the classic veggie pairings: peas with carrots, peas with cauliflower, peas with pearl onions.

It is but a happy accident that peas’ fine flavor and vibrant good looks are matched by great nutrition. All peas are a good source of calcium, iron and vitamins A and C, and those with edible pods provide plenty of dietary fiber and make terrific snack food.

The “homegrown” difference between fresh and not-so-fresh peas must be tasted to be believed. Only gardeners and their customers know the sweet, crisp flavor of fresh peas, be they shell peas, snow peas or plump snap peas. If you grow all three types or buy them from your local farmer’s market, you’ll have everything you need to explore pea cuisine — the source of several crazes in the history of food. In 1696, Madame de Maintenon, wife of French King Louis XIV, recorded that “Some ladies, even after having supped at the Royal Table, and well supped too, returning to their homes, at the risk of suffering from indigestion, will again eat peas before going to bed. It is both a fashion and a madness.”

The peas she mentioned were early strains of English shell peas, so-named because English breeders developed many fine-flavored varieties in the centuries that followed. Today, in addition to shell peas, we can also enjoy the edible pods of snow and snap peas. Often associated with Asian food, snow peas have flat pods, while snap peas feature thicker pods that are more round than flat. Snap peas are now available in the frozen food section of every major supermarket, and because they produce more food per square foot than other peas and freeze beautifully, they are the favorite of many gardeners.

Market gardeners love them, too. “They sell very easily if you give people samples, and it’s great to hear the crunch as they bite into them,” says Kevin Wilson of Powell River, British Columbia, who harvested 27 pounds of snap peas from a 20-foot quadruple row last spring, and then sold them at a farmer’s market by the pint. Snow peas yield lower because the pods are not as fat, but they, too, can make a profitable crop, and the young leaves of some snow peas are good to eat in salads. The pods of English peas are too tough to eat, so the harvest is limited to the plants’ succulent immature seeds, which are so far superior to canned peas that there’s hardly a way to compare them.

More Productive Peas

Peas require cool temperatures, below 80 degrees, so they grow best in areas where cool spring weather lasts well into early summer. Maine, Wisconsin and the Pacific Northwest have the best climates for peas, but anyone who plants promptly in early spring can grow a good crop. To make sure peas mature before the weather turns hot, plant them three or more weeks before the last spring frost. Young pea plants have no trouble surviving late cold snaps, and the seeds often are willing to germinate under late snow.

Peas are nitrogen-fixing legumes, a miracle that involves an interaction between pea roots and several strains of soil-borne bacteria. As long as the soil is reasonably fertile and contains a little nitrogen left from the previous crop, no further feeding is normally needed. An appropriate soil pH of about 6.5 is important for smooth operation of the nitrogen-fixing process, and the bacteria need to be present, too. They usually are present in soil where peas have been grown previously, but it’s cheap and easy to inoculate pea seed with N-fixing bacteria. You can buy the inoculant at garden centers (it works with beans, too). Just wet the seeds, then shake them in a jar with the powdered inoculant before planting. However, it’s always wise to amend the soil with a half inch to 1 inch of compost before planting peas.

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