Spring’s first taste of sweetness
Illustrations by Bambi Edlund
Photography by Patrick Tregenza
Peas fattening up in the field always signify to the famer in me the start of spring. They come in right around the first harvest of strawberries in mid-April, and this means farmers’ market shoppers arrive excited for the first taste of sweetness on their tongue after eating bitter greens all winter long. Kids can’t help but steal a pea from the table to savor. It also means that markets will become busier as more spring crops are available, and the lean days of winter are behind us. For farmers, the pea crop is our dual-purpose friend: Peas leave behind nodules of natural nitrogen fertilizer on their roots while providing a high-dollar, edible product to sell.
Sweet, crunchy and delicious, fresh eating peas come in three varieties: snap, snow and shelling. You can also eat the tender tips of any edible pea plant, otherwise known as pea greens or pea tendrils. But never eat the greens from colorful ornamental sweet pea flowers, as they are toxic!
Snap Peas: Created by crossing English peas with snow peas, snap peas are probably the top seller of all types of fresh peas. The whole pod, fat seeds and all, can be munched after a quick stringing—just pull off the stem and the string will follow. Much loved for their crunch and natural sweetness, snap peas make a great high-fiber, high-protein snack and kids especially love them.
Snow Peas: These are flat peas with immature seeds inside. Known best for their inclusion in Chinese dishes, they have a slight crunch but are not nearly as sweet as snap peas or shelling peas because the peas inside of them never get to mature and sweeten.
Shelling Peas, aka English Peas: These are a lot of work to shell, but it’s a job that kids are happy to help with. A pound will yield only about 1/3 cup of actual peas, so it’s a good thing the flavor goes a long way and there’s no need to shuck 20 pounds to complete your dinner side dish.
Pea Greens, aka Pea Shoots: These greens taste just like peas and have been highly prized in Chinese medicine for their high amounts of vitamins A and C. They are also high in folic acid and antioxidants. We often juice pea greens for their health benefits but also eat them in salads, pestos, omelets and other dishes.
Peas are planted winter through spring in the Monterey Bay area and mature after about 60 days. A variety I like to grow is Utrillo, which yields a large pea pod with about eight or nine fat and full peas inside.
Plant the seed directly in the soil, two lines to a 40-inch bed. No need to fertilize a pea plant; they generate their own fertilizer by affixing nitrogen from the air to their roots.
Birds like to eat the germinating seed and young plants, so it is best to keep them under a cover like Reemay, a finely spun polyester that protects them but still allows in light and water.
For growing pea greens, usually a vigorous pea variety such as Alaska is chosen. Sometimes if I have older inventory of snap, snow or English pea seeds, I will also plant them for pea greens to make use of the seed that might not have grown into a strong, mature, fruiting pea crop.
Pea seeds for greens are planted about 2 inches apart and can be harvested as soon as three weeks later for super tender sprouts. Use a knife to cut at the soil level, and the crop will return three to four more times without needing to be replanted.
If you decide to eat the greens of your shelling pea plants, be sure to plant extra to ensure an ample pea crop, too.
STORING AND PRESERVING PEAS
All peas are best eaten freshly picked; anyone who has had a gardenfresh pea right off of the plant can tell the difference in flavor even hours after picking. The crispness of a pea determines its freshness. Give one a literal “snap” when picking or selecting them at the market— they should not be flaccid or bendy. (This is one reason peas are best grown right outside the kitchen.)
If you must store peas for any length of time, refrigerate them in an airtight container.
Canning peas will yield mushy grayish matter that will taste nothing like the real thing, so freezing is the best option for preserving.
To ensure the peas keep their bright green color and stay crisp when you pull them out of the freezer, blanch them first. Put them in a colander and submerge in boiling water for 1½ minutes, then quickly dunk in ice water to stop the cooking. Strain well and spread them out on a cookie sheet to freeze for one hour. Once they are frozen, move them to a freezer-safe bag.
SIMPLE AND DELICIOUS WAYS TO ENJOY PEAS
We love peas so much at our house that I put freshly harvested ones in a bowl on the coffee table as a snack, and they disappear the same day. But peas and pea greens also make a sweet and versatile addition to any meal of the day.
The trick with fresh English peas is to not overcook. You want them to pop when you eat them, so when you cook them, be sure to keep them al dente.
When cooking with pea greens, keep in mind that younger shoots are best in salads and eaten raw. The leaves of more mature greens can be stripped off the woody stems to use raw, or the whole thing can be chopped and sautéed, stems and all.
Here are other ways to prepare your fresh peas and pea greens:
- Pea shoots make a divine spring pesto. For a bright twist, add a bit of mint to the pesto, or turn it into a dip by blending the pea shoot pesto with ricotta cheese.
- Stuff an omelet with the ricotta pea shoot pesto, along with some sautéed oyster mushrooms.
- Make a salad of pea tendrils, shelled English peas and strawberries with champagne vinaigrette and some fresh goat or sheep cheese.
- Assemble a cold salad of shelled peas and snap peas (string them first) with thyme, olive oil and raw apple cider vinegar.
- Make a chilled pea and tarragon soup by sautéing shallots or sweet onions and garlic in butter. Add 6 cups of chicken or vegetable broth and heat until boiling. Then add 3 cups of peas and cook until slightly tender. Blend together with a touch of mint and 3 cups of plain yogurt. Serve chilled.
- Roast shelling peas in their pods in the oven at 400° F with pancetta or thickly cut bacon chunks.
- Juice pea shoots, Asian pears, Meyer lemon and fresh ginger root.
- Think of fresh peas as a garnish and add them to risotto, a chicken pot pie or the top of a salad.
- Fry pea greens in a hot wok with sesame oil and a dash of soy sauce until crisp around the edges.
- Wrap pea greens around a piece of fish and set on lemon wedges to steam. The pea greens will impart a delicate pea flavor.
Jamie Collins is the owner of Serendipity Farms and has been growing organic row crops at the mouth of Carmel Valley since 2001. She distributes her produce through a CSA, u-picks and farmers’ markets.
COOK: See below for pea and pea green recipes from Todd Fisher, chef at Tarpy’s Roadhouse in Monterey.
LOCAL FOOD IN SEASON
MARCH, APRIL, MAY
Fruits Apricots* • Avocados • Blackberries* • Cactus Pears* Grapefruit** • Kumquats** • Lemons • Limes** • Mandarins** • Oranges • Pomelos** • Rhubarb** • Strawberries
Vegetables Artichokes • Arugula • Asparagus • Beets• Bok Choy • Broccoli • Broccoli Raab • Brussels Sprouts • Burdock • Cabbage • Cardoons • Carrots • Cauliflower • Celeriac*** • Celery*** • Chard • Chicory • Collards • Cress • Dandelion • Endive • Fava Beans and Greens • Fennel • Garlic • Horseradish • Kale • Kohlrabi • Leeks • Mushrooms • Mustard Greens • Nettles • Onions • Orach • Parsnips • Peas** • Pea Shoots • Potatoes • Radishes • Rutabagas** • Shallots • Spinach • Sprouts • Squash • Sunchokes • Turnips
* May only, ** March and April only ***April and May only
Fish Abalone • Dungeness Crab • Grenadier, Pacific • Halibut, California • Lingcod, Pacific • Rock Cod, aka Snapper or Rockfish • Sablefish, aka Black Cod • Sanddabs, Pacific • Seabass, White • Sole (Dover and Petrale) • Spot Prawns • Squid