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In defense of shelling peas

(post, Caroline Lewis)

Many Americans are old enough to remember the horror of being served canned peas. Younger people may seem fortunate by contrast, to never have been served anything but either frozen peas or fresh sugar snaps. These are indeed tasty, but I can assure you: Real, old-fashioned shelling (or English) peas are one of the best things you can grow in your garden. 

Why?

Well, for one thing, shelling peas 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 here in the Pacific Northwest. Because they are planted and mature earlier than most spring vegetables, they feature prominently in many classic early-spring dishes from around the world.

[%image peas float=right width=400 caption="Old-fashioned shelling pea seeds are getting harder to find."]

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 also 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 shelling peas at markets 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 seeds, 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, Territorial Seeds, Seedsavers Exchange, and Johnny’s Selected Seeds are among our favorites. As for pea varietals, we favor Maestro, Waverex (true French petits pois, or baby peas), Swiss Gian snow peas (vining), and Super Sugar Snap (vining) or Sugar Ann snap peas.

[%image reference-image float=right width=400 caption="A happy gardener munching on fresh peas."]

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 four per square foot, and use two- or three-foot bamboo stakes to support them. This isn’t strictly necessary, but helps keep them tidier and easier to harvest. 

Harvest shelling peas when the pods are plump but not swollen tight; overly mature peas are not a pleasure to eat. 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.

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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 peas 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.


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