Now is the time to embrace the emerald green wonders of spring: Sweet peas. Fresh, sweet green peas are one of the few vegetables found only in their brief season. Beyond spring, fresh pod peas (aka shelling peas or English peas) barely exist.
For a few brief spring weeks, fresh shelling peas grace the bins at farmers markets and produce stands ready for shucking. If you’ve not cooked fresh peas, know that their sweetness and deep, green vegetable flavor are like none other. Like sweet corn, the natural sugars in the peas change as they age — even day-old peas have a different sweetness than fresh picked. If you’re into it, buy both and cook them side by side. You’ll taste the difference.
Shucking peas sounds like a romantic job best done on the porch rocking chair. True, but shucking during a Netflix marathon works, too. Simply hold the pea pod with the seam toward you and pop it open at the end opposite where it was attached to the vine. Use your fingertip to dislodge the peas into a bowl. It takes nearly 1½ pounds of peas in the pod to yield a cup of shelled peas.
I must confess that I am a fan of the containers of shucked peas some market vendors sell — super time-saving. I can toss them in my weekend post-farmers market omelet, or have a fresh green vegetable on the table in less than 5 minutes. That is, if I don’t munch on them all in their raw state of spring goodness.
No shucking required for spring’s other pea offerings: Snow peas and sugar snaps. Snow peas, aka Chinese peas, are flat, pale green and picked and eaten before the peas inside plump. Sugar snaps, likewise, are consumed pod, pea and all. Both are beloved for their crunch and readily available in small bags in grocery stores. Do scoop them up when they appear at the farmers market — they have a superior crunch and sweetness to their packaged brethren.
Except for the very smallest snow peas and sugar snap peas, you’ll need to string this type of pea. Simply hold the pea at the end that was connected to the vine and pull down to remove the string. The effort pays off when the peas are eaten raw as a snack or sauteed or steamed as a vegetable side.
We tuck more pea flavor into salads and stir fries with fresh pea shoots (aka pea greens). The tender shoots come from a cultivar of snow peas and are used widely in Chinese cooking. Because of their popularity with chefs, fresh pea shoots now appear at farmers markets and specialty stores in addition to Asian markets.
I buy pea shoots, which are extremely fragile, the day I plan to cook them — if kept dry and refrigerated they can last a day or two at most. I like to use small, delicate-tasting leaves and tendrils in salads and as a garnish. If the shoots sport large leaves and thickish stems, saute them in olive oil — they wilt like spinach — for about a minute.
Life is good when I have all the pea options before me — so I cook them together and season them lightly with spring herbs, plenty of sweet butter and coarse salt. Peas in abundance mean a simple soup enhanced with the dark green flavors (and occasionally some heat) from a poblano chile. Serve the soup hot with fresh cheese or cold with hot pepper sauce.
Dinner at Chicago’s Michelin-starred Band of Bohemia inspired the recipe for skirt steak with peas and greens. The brewpub served the steak on a bed of grits. Brilliant textural contrast with the thinly sliced beef and delicate greens. Use pea shoots in the greens mix when they are available. Enjoy this dish with a citrusy sour beer or a wheat beer.
Of course, frozen peas can stand in for all the fresh peas in these recipes.