Picking Peas

By Stephanie Witt Sedgwick
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Peas peaked early. All the rage in 17th- and 18th-century Europe, thanks to the development of tender, sweet varieties in England, they lost their luster by the 20th. Between the cafeteria cooks and the cans, both of which turned them to mush, peas became anything but chic.

The rise of their sexy edible-pod cousins, the snow pea and sugar snap pea, didn't help. But I think the pea's biggest problem is this: Farmers are hundreds, even thousands of miles from most of the markets that carry their produce, and peas aren't good travelers. Though the pods themselves can withstand picking, shipping and refrigeration, the peas inside suffer mightily. Hours after picking, the sugar that makes a pea so sweet starts to turn to starch. Pea pods picked one day, then shipped to supermarkets and sold days later, are sad shadows of the sweet packets that were pulled from the vine.

So in an age when fresh vegetables are touted as lifesavers and restaurants are built around the fresh-from-the-farm concept, I'm going to suggest something radical: Unless you're on the farm or can buy right from the farmer, buy frozen peas.

I'm following the lead of my friend Kelly, who grew up on a farm in Nokesville. Confronted with an annual abundance of peas, her mom set up her own version of a processing plant. She shelled the peas, blanched them and put them right into the freezer. "Mom wouldn't think of keeping peas overnight," Kelly says. "If we didn't eat them that day, she froze them."

Today, a similar, though highly mechanized, process happens commercially. Harvesters go through the fields picking and shelling the peas right there, plowing the vines and pods under for a natural mulch. Spokeswoman Pam Becker of General Mills, Green Giant's parent company, explains that the peas go right from the harvesters to processing plants next to the fields. There they are blanched, quick-frozen and stored in large batches. "The whole process is done in hours," she says.

Freezing not only packs in the sugar but also is extremely effective at retaining the nutrients. Along with their sweet flavor, peas are a good source of folate, vitamins A and C, phosphorus, iron and thiamine. All are preserved.

I know what you're thinking: Reaching into the freezer for your "spring" peas isn't as romantic as strolling through the farmers market. Frankly, if you have a good farm-fresh source, go for it. Gary Allensworth, for instance, grows peas on his farm in Montross, Va., and delivers them under the banner "Lois's Produce" to markets across Northern Virginia. "We pick them the day or even the night before," Allensworth says. "That's the only way they stay fresh." By 8 a.m. the next day, Allensworth is selling the peas at his stands.

Locally grown garden peas should start appearing in markets in late May or early June. When you find them, buy a big bagful and enjoy the old-fashioned pleasure of sitting outside on a warm afternoon, shelling to your heart's content. If you can't eat them soon, blanch and freeze.

There is one more way to buy a pea, but I don't recommend it, even though Becker says it's the most popular way in the United States. Apart from the horrible washed-out color, I think canned peas taste terrible: mushy and mealy. They bear little resemblance to fresh or frozen sweet peas, which are good enough to be eaten out of hand.

Which brings me to the cooking. There's no harm in a plate of plain steamed peas or in peas served with a lemon sauce or mint and butter, but I think they shine brightest as an addition to other dishes. Peas and rice are a perfect match, immortalized by the Italians in the traditional risi e bisi. I love to sprinkle peas over chicken braised in white wine, or toss them in a butter and basil sauce to be served over ravioli. I pair them with seafood, potatoes, ham and, of course, lamb. Leftover lamb and sweet baby peas make for a great risotto.

While fresh peas barely need cooking, neither do the frozen ones, which can go straight from the freezer to whatever food you're adding them to. As long as there's enough cooking time left to defrost and warm them, just toss them in. If they do need more cooking, or if you want to put them in something cold, steaming is the gentler choice, preserving flavor and nutrients. Once you steam them, sprinkle peas over a simple salad of poached salmon with greens and a light vinaigrette.

As for the choice between baby peas and the larger sweet peas, I let the cooking time dictate. When I'm adding peas to salads or throwing a handful into a soup or a pasta dish at the last minute, I choose the small ones. When I'm mixing peas into a rice dish or letting them cook with something for 10 or 15 minutes, I reach for the larger ones.

Whichever way I go, it's a relief to know that when we're home late from the baseball game or if a meeting delays dinner, I have something to start with right there in the freezer. It's not the hippest vegetable. It's not the stuff of poetry. It's just a bag of sweet peas, free of their pods, flavor locked in, ready to go.

Stephanie Witt Sedgwick, a former Food section recipe editor, can be reached atfood@washpost.com. Her "In Season" column appears the first Wednesday of each month.

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