When fresh peas start showing up at my local market, it means I can finally stow my heavy wool sweaters and get ready for spring. These harbingers of warmer weather reflect the coming season in their color as well as in their sweetness.
English, snap, and snow
Classified as “shelling peas” because they’re shucked from their fibrous pods before they’re eaten, tender English (aka garden) peas may be the first kind of pea that comes to mind. Bright-green sugar snap peas and lighter colored Chinese snow peas are known as “pod peas” because they’re housed in edible casings; the French call them mangetout, for “eat everything.” Though the aforementioned types of peas can sometimes be used interchangeably, there are a few uses that each is best suited for.
English peas are perfect for soups and are classic additions to pastas as well as pilafs, paellas, risottos, and other rice dishes. Sugar snaps, which are also fabulous raw, make a great side dish when cooked for a few minutes in well-salted boiling water or gently sautéed in butter or olive oil with shallots or garlic and a splash of water. Good on their own, they’re even better tossed with a pinch or two of ground or crushed toasted spices (think coriander, cumin, red pepper flakes, and more), a dash of citrus zest, and/or chopped toasted almonds or other nuts. Snow peas are best used raw or cooked briefly, which is why they work so well in salads, stir-fries, and sautés.
With these different kinds of peas and so many ways to enjoy them, a pea devotee can easily cook her way through the season with nary a repeated dish: Toss peas in a pan with some smoky bacon to make a great side dish for skillet-cooked salmon or crisp-skinned chicken, or purée them into a silky soup that’s not only lightning fast to prepare but also delicious warm or chilled. Peas go well with all kinds of tender fresh herbs, especially tarragon and chives, and they won’t overwhelm subtly flavored cheeses, such as in these ricotta crostini or a pea-and-burrata salad.
Choose evenly colored, shiny, firm pods
Snow peas are at their peak when blemish-free, sturdy, and filled with barely visible peas. The shells of sugar snaps and English varieties should be filled with small to medium-size peas. Avoid overly large or bulging pods, which indicate tough, starchy peas as well as noticeably lightweight pods, which yield immature peas with little flavor. To try a fun test, gently press on podded English peas so that the peas inside rub against one another; if you hear a squeak, the peas are fresh. All peas are best eaten as close as possible to the time they’re picked. If you don’t plan to eat them on the day you buy them, refrigerate them in a tightly sealed plastic bag.
Easy-peasy prep tips
Before cooking sugar snap peas, pull back the stem sides to unzip the strings, which will be present along one or both of the peas’ lengths; discard the strings. Use sugar snaps whole or sliced. To remove English peas from their pods, remove the strings, and then use your thumb to push the fresh peas from their pods. (Empty English-pea pods can be saved for making vegetable stocks; they keep well frozen for several months and don’t need to be thawed before using.) Snow peas simply require their ends trimmed, and then are good to go, whole, chopped, or sliced.
Although nothing beats the sweetness and snap of freshly picked peas, frozen peas are great for perking up post-season dishes. They’re especially great in soups, mashes, sautés, pestos, and dips. That said, I almost never choose frozen over fresh once spring has sprung, the grass is green, and my wool sweaters are but a memory.