In an age when so many fresh fruits and vegetables are available to us year-round, fresh peas can be annoyingly hard to come by. The season of the English pea, as it is properly known, is fleeting. Around these parts peas are generally planted in March, thrive in cool weather and are ready to be picked in late April. But fresh pea fans know to move quickly: Those harvested after June are likely to be tough and starchy.
Peas' delicate constitution also makes them a poor prospect for the produce bin at the supermarket. Their sugars begin to break down into starch the moment they are plucked from the vine; even when refrigerated, they lose their natural sweetness within a few days of picking.
Their edible-pod cousins, however, are less perishable and can be found in grocery stores much of the year, though they, too, are best freshly picked. Snow peas, with their flat pods and tiny, immature peas, are typically used in stir-fry dishes. The more recently developed sugar snap pea (a hybrid of the English pea and the snow pea that made its debut in the 1970s) has a smaller, fleshier pod that contains mature peas. Both sugar snaps and snow peas can be eaten whole raw, but they are best when cooked briefly -- blanched, stir-fried or sauteed -- just until they turn a bright jewel green while maintaining their crispness.
The English pea was considered to be Thomas Jefferson's favorite vegetable, and he grew about 20 varieties in his two-acre kitchen garden at Monticello, says Peter J. Hatch, director of gardens and grounds. Jefferson held famous annual contests with neighboring farmers to see who could bring the first peas of the season to the table. The winner then hosted a dinner at which the winning variety of peas was featured.
Although it runs counter to our American mentality of bigger is better, the best peas are usually the tiniest ones, notes Hatch.
Five types of peas are still cultivated in the Monticello gardens, Hatch says, in part because peas are great soil improvers. The peas themselves, the seeds of the plant, are loaded with energy -- protein and fiber, as well as vitamins A and C, potassium and iron.
It's too bad so many of us are familiar with just two kinds of peas -- canned and frozen. In fact, the vast majority of the pea crop in the United States is destined for processing, says Gary Lucier, an agricultural economist at the Economic Research Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The USDA doesn't even keep statistics on fresh market peas.
"Peas have a long history as a processed product in this country," Lucier says. "Thirty years ago you didn't find a whole lot of fresh produce in the U.S." But that is changing. Fresh produce represents the biggest growth portion of vegetable industry, Lucier says, whereas the canned vegetable market in particular has seen a slow erosion of its market share. The per capita consumption of canned peas, for example, dropped from 2.7 pounds in 1980 to 1.3 pounds in 2002.
The proliferation of farm stands and farmers markets also appears to be nudging fresh peas toward a comeback. Some markets (especially those featuring Asian produce) even carry the delicate young sprouts and leaves of the pea vine, known as pea shoots. Pea shoots have long been used in Chinese dishes and are typically stir-fried with lots of garlic until just wilted. But they can also be tossed raw into salads or sauteed in a little butter or olive oil.
As for English peas, their mild flavor is best paired with their peers of spring and early summer (artichokes, radishes, spring onions and tender lettuces) and with herbs that enhance their natural sweetness (try dill, mint and thyme). A classic way to prepare peas is to braise them in a pan with lettuce, some butter and a little water, seasoning them only with salt and freshly ground pepper.
Though peas are easy to prepare, many consider shelling from their pods a chore. Chore? If shucking peas at dusk on the front stoop or back patio (perhaps while sipping a cocktail?) is a chore, let me be the first to volunteer. At the end of a long work week, it's a perfect way to unwind, especially if you have help. My kids, who know a true chore when they are asked to perform one, love shelling peas. My son turns the event into a race with his younger sister, who either intentionally or unintentionally ignores the fact that a competition is taking place and proceeds at her own idle pace.
Domenica Marchetti last wrote for Food on creating new dishes from leftover roast chicken.