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Sweet Peas: The Essence of Spring

Fresh-from-the-pod peas are best enjoyed simply, and soon

Fine Cooking Issue 38
Photos: Scott Phillips
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English peas, also called sweet peas, are creatures of cool weather—not cool enough to be cold, but not warm enough to be hot either. In other words, spring—which means their appearance is brief in most places.

A bowl of freshly shucked peas, simmered briefly and then tossed with butter, is luxurious, and this is one of the very best ways to experience their unique sweetness and the engaging way they pop in your mouth. But if you’re up for exploration, you’ll find that fresh peas are wonderfully versatile: they’re equally well-suited to puréeing to make a soup, adding to risotto or pasta, or, if you don’t have very many, using as a garnish for vegetable ragoûts or sautés, salads, pastas, or stir-fries.

Hurry peas home and cook them soon

Unless you grow sweet peas yourself, the farmers’ market is the best source for good ones. Exposure to heat during long-distance travel can dry up their juices and turn their sugars to starch. Time does the same thing, which is why peas often don’t look their best in the grocery store; they’re days away from the field and tired from travel.

At the market, look for bright-green, moist-looking, medium-size pods

Pea pods should swell gently (rather than bulge) with their cargo. Too large and they’re likely to be starchy; too small and chances are the peas nestled inside won’t be much bigger than a small bead. If the pods look dried or yellowed or are beginning to shrivel in places, you can be pretty sure that the peas within will have lost their magic and are on their way to becoming starchy. Ask for a taste at the market—open up a pod and find out. A pea that’s perfect will be sweet, moist and crunchy.

Peas are sweetest and most tender cooked soon and briefly

They taste best when cooked as soon as possible after picking or purchasing, and they’re done when their green color brightens, which usually takes about a minute in boiling water.

Peas seem to have been naturally designed for easy shucking, so they go fast. You can usually shuck a pound of pods, which yields about one cup of peas, in about ten minutes. So sit down and shuck away, opening up the pods with your thumbnail.

Fresh peas are divine in any dish. They’re worlds better than frozen: the variation in size is a refreshing departure from packaged, graded peas, and the special flavor is unmatched.

Peas’ delicate spring flavor is unusually versatile

I can’t think of an herb that isn’t a natural with peas, even tender spring sage leaves with their minty overtones are pea-compatible. Anything that’s in season with peas is bound to partner them well—especially spring onions, butter lettuce, leeks, sorrel, and new turnips.

More ways with sweet peas

When pea season arrives, indulge. Few vegetables can compete with a bowl of simply cooked fresh shucked peas tossed with sweet butter, sea salt, and freshly ground pepper, but here are a few more of my favorite contenders. Try tossing briefly cooked peas with:

toasted sesame seeds, slivered scallions, cilantro, and a drizzle of dark sesame oil (shown at right).

fresh butter with chopped chervil and chives, or chopped mint, tarragon, or lovage.

a spoonful of fragrant olive oil with torn basil leaves or fresh sage, plus the blossoms.

a few drops of roasted peanut oil with freshly minced ginger and spring garlic.

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