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Peas, fresh

Why Eat It
Varieties
Availability
Shopping
Storage
Preparation
Nutrition Chart


Why Eat It

Green garden peas are legumes, plants that produce pods enclosing fleshy seeds. Unlike dried legumes such as chick-peas, split peas and most beans that require long cooking times, green peas are packaged and prepared like all fresh green vegetables. Like all seeds, they are storehouses of nourishment and provide low-fat protein, too. Green peas are second only to lima beans as a fresh vegetable source of protein. A 1 cup serving of peas contains more protein than a whole egg or a tablespoon of peanut butter yet has less than half a gram of fat.

Peas in their dried form have been used as a food since ancient times--archaeologists found them in Egyptian tombs--but it was not until the 16th century that tender varieties were developed to be eaten fresh. In the 17th century, Louis XIV's court discovered the delights of eating young fresh peas. In the 19th century, Gregor Mendel, an Austrian monk and botanist, used peas for his famous plant breeding and heredity experiments which are considered the foundation of modern genetics.

Today, only about 5% of the green peas are marketed fresh while the rest of the crop is canned or frozen. Frozen green peas retain their color, flavor, and nutrients better than canned peas and are much lower in sodium. If just thawed and not cooked, frozen peas can be substituted for fresh peas in salads and other uncooked dishes. Canned peas lack the appetizing color and the delicate texture and flavor. Most canned peas have added salt and sugar.

Varieties

Green peas, typically round and sweet, are encased in a large, bulging, grass-green pod that is not very palatable. Fresh peas are in limited supply in produce markets.

Fresh snow peas and sugar snap peas are in greater supply. These edible-pod peas are meant to be eaten--cooked or raw--with the pod intact. Snow peas (also called sugar peas and Chinese pea pods) have pale green flat pods with small, immature-looking peas because they are picked before the seeds have developed in the pod. Probably developed in Holland in the 16th century snow peas are most familiar in stir-fries. Sugar snaps were created in the 1970s as a cross between the snow pea and green pea. They have plump edible pods filled with extremely sweet and tender peas.

Availability

Fresh green peas have a very limited season: Their peak is April through July, and they are least plentiful from September through December (though California, Florida, and Mexico provide some peas for the market in winter). Snow peas are sold year round in Asian markets; some supermarkets carry them during the period from May to December, when they are most abundant. Fresh sugar snaps have a more limited distribution, but you can buy them at roadside farm stands and farmers' markets in late spring and early summer. Frozen snow peas and sugar snaps are widely available.

Shopping

At the market, fresh green peas should be refrigerated; if kept at room temperature, half their sugar content will turn to starch within a few hours. Low temperatures also help preserve the texture and nutrient content. Look for firm, glossy pods with a slightly velvety feel, filled almost to bursting; the peas should not rattle loosely in the pod. Choose medium-sized pods rather than overlarge ones. The stem, leaves, and tip should be soft and green. Toss back pods that are puffy, dull, yellowed, or heavily speckled. If possible, crack open a pod and taste a few peas for sweetness. While you may find trays of preshelled peas in the market that will save you time and labor, such peas are likely to be mealy and not very sweet because of the rapid conversion of their sugar to starch.

Snow peas should be shiny and flat, with tiny peas barely visible through the pod. Small ones will be the sweetest and most tender. Old snow peas often appear twisted. Sugar snaps should be bright green, plump, and firm; the pod should tightly encase small peas. Avoid limp or yellowed sugar snaps. Break a pod in half to see if it snaps crisply.

A pound of peas in the pod will yield about 1 cup of shelled peas; a quarter pound of snow peas or sugar snaps will usually be sufficient for one serving as a side dish.

Storage

It's best to serve all types of fresh peas the day of purchase. If you must store them, place the unwashed pods in a perforated plastic bag and refrigerate them for no more than a day or two. Do not shell the peas until you cook or eat them.

Preparation

Rinse the green pea pods just before shelling them. Pinch off the stem with your fingernail and pull the string down the length of the pod. The pod will pop open, then push out the peas with your thumb. If the pods are clean on the outside, you need not wash the peas. When cooking the peas, you can add three or four pods for extra flavor. (Save some pods for flavoring chicken or vegetable stock; then discard them with any other solids when the stock is strained.)

Snow peas and sugar snaps should also be rinsed before preparation. With snow peas, simply cut the tips from both ends of the pod using kitchen shears, perfect for this job. Sugar snaps should have the string removed whether they are to be eaten raw or cooked. Unlike green peas, the string on a sugar snap runs around both sides of the pod. It's easiest to start at the bottom tip and pull the string up the front, then snap off the stem and pull the string down the back. Snow peas and sugar snaps, as well as shelled green peas, can be eaten raw. But if you cook them, do so briefly so that they retain their delicate and delicious flavor and texture.

The quickest way to thaw frozen peas (for use in salads or in dishes that require further cooking, such as casseroles) is to place them in a strainer or colander and pour boiling water over them. When you prepare frozen peas, according to package directions, on the stovetop or in the microwave, check them after just a minute or two as they are unlikely to require the full cooking time suggested on the package. If overcooked, they will turn mushy and gray, look unappetizing, and lose much of their vitamin C content.

Blanching: This method works especially well for sugar snaps and snow peas because they are boiled in an uncovered pot that can be easily monitored to prevent overcooking. Blanching tenderizes the peas and brings out their brightest color. Bring a large pot of water to a boil over high heat and drop in the peas. From the time the water returns to a boil, it should be a matter of seconds until the pods begin to turn a vibrant green. Drain them and cool immediately in ice water to stop the cooking process. Cooking time: 30 seconds to one minute.

Braising in lettuce leaves: This classic French cooking method, which keeps the peas moist in a nest of lettuce leaves, can be used for fresh or frozen peas; it will enhance the flavor and tenderness of fresh peas that are slightly past their prime.

Wash but do not dry leaves of a soft lettuce, such as Bibb or Boston. (If the leaves are large or coarse, shred them.) Line a saucepan with several layers of leaves and place the peas in this nest. Add seasonings (pepper, herbs, and a pinch of sugar if you like), layer the peas with more lettuce leaves, and cover the pan. The peas can steam-cook in the moisture clinging to the leaves, but you can also add a few tablespoonfuls of water or broth. Cook the peas over medium heat until they are tender. Discard the lettuce before serving, or chop it and serve it with the peas. Cooking time: 15 to 20 minutes.

Microwaving: Place 1 cup of shelled peas or 1/2 pound of snow peas in a covered dish with 1 tablespoon of liquid. Stir the peas halfway through the cooking time. Cooking times: for green peas, 5 minutes; for snow peas, eight to 10 minutes.

Steaming: Fresh green peas, sugar snaps or snow peas can be steam-boiled in a small amount of liquid: The less liquid you use, the more nutrients the vegetables retain. Place 1/2" of water in a pan, cover tightly, and bring to a boil. Fresh or dried herbs can be added. Omit salt as it toughens the peas. Add the peas, cover the pan, and simmer until the green peas are just tender; sugar snaps and snow peas should be a brilliant emerald green and barely crisp-tender. For extra flavor, use broth instead of water; add chopped onion, celery, or scallions. Cooking times: for shelled peas, five to 10 minutes; for snow peas and sugar snaps, one to two minutes.

Snow peas and sugar snaps can also be cooked in a vegetable steamer placed over boiling water. Cooking time: two to three minutes.

Stir-frying: Snow peas are frequently used in Chinese stir-fries. Slice each pod diagonally into two or three pieces, if you wish. Cook both fresh and frozen snow peas only until the pods turn bright green and still crisp. Sugar snaps can also be quickly stir-fried. Cooking time: one to two minutes.

Nutrition Chart

Green Peas/1 cup cooked

134
Total fat (g)
0.4
Saturated fat (g)
0.1
Monounsaturated fat (g)
0
Polyunsaturated fat (g)
0.2
Dietary fiber (g)
8.8
9
Carbohydrate (g)
25
Cholesterol (mg)
0
Sodium (mg)
5
Thiamin (mg)
0.4
Niacin (mg)
3.2
Vitamin B6 (mg)
0.4
Vitamin C (mg)
23
Folate (mcg)
101
Magnesium (mg)
62
Manganese (mg)
0.8
Phosphorus (mg)
187

Edible-Pod Peas/1 cup cooked

67
Total fat (g)
4
Saturated fat (g)
0.1
Monounsaturated fat (g)
0
Polyunsaturated fat (g)
0.2
Dietary fiber (g)
4.5
5
Carbohydrate (g)
11
Cholesterol (mg)
0
Sodium (mg)
6
Vitamin C (mg)
77


Date Published: 04/20/2005
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