In Defense of Shelling Peas
April 04, 2011 at 3:45 PM
A lot of Americans are old enough to remember the horror of being served canned peas. Younger people may seem fortunate in contrast, to have never have been served anything but either frozen peas or fresh sugar snaps. These are tasty, but we assure you that real, old-fashioned shelling or English peas are one of the best things you can grow in your garden. Why?
Well, for one thing, they have a more complex and interesting flavor than the more prevalent sugar snap peas. Freshly picked, they’re just as sweet, but not so one-dimensional. They are the first vegetables to be planted in spring, tolerating cold, wet conditions just like what we’re experiencing right now. Because they are planted and mature earlier than most spring vegetables, they feature prominently in many classic early spring dishes from around the world.
Shelling peas are a must in Italian cooking, for example: think risotto milanese and pasta primavera, for example. Peas marry perfectly with pork in Italian cuisine, including prosciutto, pancetta and guanciale. And that’s just Italian food - shelling peas are an important ingredient in French, Indian and, of course, American cuisine as well.
Perhaps most importantly, shelling peas are just about impossible to experience at their peak of flavor unless you grow them yourself. Their sugars start converting to starch as soon as they’re picked, meaning they start to lose their characteristic sweetness within hours of being picked. By the time they reach grocery store shelves, they’re rarely worth eating at all. Farmers markets are certainly a better bet, but even those will be hours old by the time you cook them. The best scenario is to go into your garden and pick them just before dinner. Enlist some help from the kids shelling them (if they haven’t already eaten them all standing out in the garden). We enjoy shelling peas, and consider it a great way to unwind and socialize before dinner, preferably with a glass of wine at hand.
Sadly, it’s slowly getting harder to find shelling pea seed, especially the old-fashioned vining varieties that grow on trellises or other vertical supports. Bush varieties - developed for their ease of mechanical harvesting - are far more common. We grow both types, depending upon available space in the garden. The good news is that a number of companies feature heirloom seeds of shelling peas, including some hard-to-find varieties. Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, Territorial Seed Company, Seed Savers Exchange and Johnny’s Selected Seeds are among our favorites. As for pea varieties, we favor Premium, Maestro and Waverex for bush peas, and vining Alderman for trellises.
Peas of any kind are easy to grow, and along with beans are our very young clients’ favorite seed to plant. They’re relatively pest-free and, as mentioned above, grow early in the spring when you can’t even think about planting most vegetables. Once germinated (this can take a week or two in cold weather), they should start producing in about 60 days. We plant the bush varietals 4 per square foot and use 2-3' tall bamboo stakes to support them. This isn’t strictly necessary, but helps keep them upright and easier to harvest.
Harvest shelling peas when the pods are plump but not swollen tight; overly mature peas become starchy and unpleasant. If you keep harvesting the pods as they mature on the vine, they’ll keep producing for weeks on end. Our clients love both peas and beans because they are so productive over such a long period of time.
Plant lots of peas - as many plants as you have room for. They’ll go fast. Along with cherry tomatoes, they’re the most popular snacking vegetable in the garden. It takes quite a few pods to make a respectable pile of shelled peas, as well. And they freeze very well, whether shelling, sugar snap, or snow peas. We blanch them in lightly salted boiling water for 30 seconds at most, then immediately plunge them into ice water, drain, and freeze.
We love peas simmered until just tender in water and served with butter as a side dish to just about anything. Try them in anything “primavera,” or in a spring risotto. Fresh pea soup - made of peas and sautéed leeks simmered in chicken broth, puréed and napped with a little cream or crème fraîche - is not to be missed. And for a special occasion treat, try chef Paul James’ succulent fresh pea gnocchi recipe, also posted on our blog.
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