WHEN IT COMES TO PEAS, there seems to be no middle ground. Either you’re saddled with the memory of your mother admonishing, “Eat your peas,” (as if eating the overcooked, chalky little orbs was punishment for misdeeds past or anticipated), or you celebrate spring by munching handfuls of fresh, raw snap peas, hoping with each sweet bite that you can muster enough discipline to save some for dinner.
A popular crop in the Hudson Valley, peas are one of the first vegetables available in the spring; they’re relatively easy to grow and versatile in the kitchen. But their short season means the favored ones go fast at the markets, and the devil take the rest. Deb Taft, of Mobius Fields in Waccabuc, has had great success marketing her snap peas, but that’s it. “I was hoping that growing yellow and purple varieties of snow peas would make them more appealing,” she confesses, “but it really didn’t.”
The widespread use and long history of peas stretches all over the map. They may have been a regular item in the human diet more than 10,000 years ago, though Chinese history says Emperor Shen Nong discovered them about 5,000 years ago. The Greeks and Romans had domesticated peas by 500 BCE, and the world’s oldest cookbook, compiled by the Roman cook Apicius in the early fifth century, includes nine recipes for peas.
For the Record
Historically, the leaders of our young Republic held peas in high regard. They were President Thomas Jefferson’s favorite vegetable; he grew 30 varieties in his garden at Monticello. George Washington also loved peas, but his attempts to grow them at Mount Vernon met with mixed success. Unfortunately, more recent residents of the White House do not share our forefathers’ affection for the vegetable. Both Clintons and at least one Obama have expressed a disdain for peas. It’s also well known that both Bush presidents dislike all vegetables except ketchup.
Peas Are Pulses, Too
The United Nations General Assembly has declared 2016 the International Year of Pulses as part of an effort to heighten public awareness of the nutritional benefits of pulses as part of a sustainable and secure food system. Pulses are legumes (including lentils, beans, peas and chickpeas) that are dried and used for human or animal consumption. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) notes that pulses are a vital source of plant-based proteins for people and animals, and it also recognizes the plants’ nitrogen-fixing properties, which can “contribute to increasing soil fertility and have a positive impact on the environment.” The hope is that the events and conferences scheduled throughout the year will encourage more use of pulses as food, expand global production and address the challenges in commercial trade. For more information visit www.fao.org/pulses-2016.
Peas are a legume, a family of plants that includes beans, lentils, peanuts and tamarind. Legumes “fix” nitrogen in the soil, and thus are considered a valuable crop, whether grown for cash or as cover. They’re also a member of the food group known as “pulses,” dried beans that are considered a valuable food resource for both humans and animals, as well as an economically significant market crop. (In fact, the United Nations has designated 2016 as “The Year of the Pulses.”)
There are three types of peas generally recognized. Garden peas have smooth, slightly curved pods with rounded green peas, which may be wrinkled or smooth. Garden pea pods (the outer shell that holds the peas inside) can be eaten, but they usually aren’t because they include a tough, fibrous cellulose lining. Snow peas are flatter, with thinner pods than garden peas. The pod is edible—but snow peas have fibrous “strings” that must be removed before eating. Snap peas are a cross between garden and snow peas. They have plump, crispy, edible pods. Pea greens, including sprouts as well as young foliage and stems, also are edible, delicious and nutritious. (Peas in general are a great source of vitamin K; a very good source of manganese, vitamin B1, copper, vitamin C, phosphorus and folate; and a good source of zinc, protein, magnesium, iron and potassium, as well as vitamins B6, B3 and B2.)
A cool-season crop, peas usually are planted about six weeks before the average last frost date, or as soon as the soil is workable. (Peas are not generally started indoors because the sprouts are too delicate to survive the shock of transplanting.) In the Hudson Valley, St. Patrick’s Day (March 17) usually is a good target date for planting.
Hudson Valley farmers generally agree that peas are a customer favorite. Kimberley Hart and Thad Simerly, of Starling Yards (Red Hook), call them “an early shot of green sweetness.” They sell snow peas along with very popular snap peas. “I am not sure if people even get their snaps home,” Hart notes, “I think they are a snack on their drive home.”
Jake Samascott, at Samascott Orchards (Kinderhook), grows both garden and snap peas and also says snap peas are by far the more popular. Dan Madura, of Madura Farms (Pine Island), grows all three pea varieties as well as pea greens. Snow peas are his bestseller. And if you’re going to paint a still life with peas, Hepworth Farms (Milton) offers the extra-long, fancy Penelope variety, a stunner worthy of van Gogh.
Hart advises home growers to taste the peas often as they approach maturity to determine the best time to harvest. “Tough pea pods are gross, as are big, chalky peas,” he notes, “so knowing which pods are ready and which ones are past their prime is key.” Once harvested, pods should be completely dry before refrigerating. They will keep three to five days before they become starchy.
In the kitchen, peas are an easy way to add color, sweetness and texture to a dish while increasing the nutritional value, to boot. With such a long history, wide range and availability, it’s no surprise that peas have found their way into classic dishes around the globe, from Italy (spaghetti carbonara with sweet peas and prosciutto) to Ireland (shepherd’s pie) and India (mattar paneer, mattar masala). Chef David Amorelli, at Harvest-on- Hudson in Hastings-on-Hudson, has it covered. “I’m, like, half Italian and half Irish,” he says. “My mom would bring prosciutto to a crisp, add some peas, add some cream—and that was a classic side dish. Irish grandmas put them in everything; my grandma’s dishes weren’t the prettiest, but they were delicious.”