by Sarah West
May marches in with a ruffled lettuce cape, an asparagus crown studded with radishes, a necklace of glowing green pearls. Baskets of crunchy-sweet peas at the farmers’ market seem the poster child of spring vegetables—crisp, light, sugary and satisfying, they are the perfect snack food and a straightforward ingredient.
Historically, peas were harvested in their dried form and cooked, year-round, into thick porridges accented with seasonal vegetables and herbs. Peas’ high protein content made them a nutritious alternative to meat, and a staple of the commoner’s kitchen. Native to temperate regions of the Middle East and central Asia, the garden pea’s ancestor, known today as field peas, nourished generations of early civilizations and is thought to be one of the first agricultural crops.
Peas eaten fresh, as we think of them, were an Italian innovation. Italian botanists of the late Middle Ages selected a pea variety for earlier plantings and green pea harvest. Dubbed piselli novella (new peas), this novel crop quickly became popular with the Italian nobility, and traveled with Catherine de Medici to France, where farmers took this new genetic material and ran—cultivating sweeter and sweeter varieties, which they called petits pois (little peas). These varieties are known today as shelling peas, those whose pod is too fibrous to eat, but whose peas are the tender, creamy, silky rich sweetness a porridge-eater could only dream of.
Edible pea pods were also likely a European invention, though some claim that Chinese farmers may have also cultivated an edible pod type. In Europe, the pea’s biggest fan may have been the English, who are one of the earliest and most enthusiastic cultivators of garden varieties, though Holland is often credited with developing the first edible pods. Peas, in all three forms, came early to the New World and were staples of colonial settlements for their dry storage ability and high protein content.
Thomas Jefferson declared the pea his favorite vegetable, and in his garden at Monticello he grew 30 varieties, competing among the neighbors for earliest production. Those who make an annual practice of planting peas into their soggy spring soil know the feeling; peas are one of the first seeds we sow each year, and as such embody those first hopeful imaginings of a bountiful garden. At that stage of the game, looking over a garden still deep in hibernation, imagination is required.
Pea seeds sprout relatively quickly, and in cool soils, promptly providing the first hard evidence of a garden, but fruiting takes about two months. While the wait can be long for the main course, pea plants are themselves a sort of appetizer. Long embraced by Asian cuisines, the tender growth tips of the pea plant are a seasonal delicacy becoming more popular in American markets and restaurants. While harvesting and selecting pea shoots (sometimes called pea tips) has a few tricks, the rewards are worth the diligence.
Pea shoots, when harvested while still young and tender, are the most sumptuous green I know. They taste very much like a pea—all of its mellow richness and delightful nuance—with a depth only greens can provide; their cellular density designed for energy conversion and growth harnesses pea flavor and delivers it, in some perfectly concentrated form, in the space of a few delicate munches.
Pea shoots harvested too late in the game are fibrous, frustrating things. Cooking does them no good, so I suggest you save your pea shoot aspirations for only the best. When buying them at the market, test the stems for tenderness: pea shoots should separate easily with a small amount of pressure from your fingernail; those that resist will do the same to your teeth.
If you have a bit of garden space waiting for tomatoes or some other summer crop, consider a dense scattering of pea seeds (they can be planted up to five seed per inch) sown in succession over a few weeks. Cut the plants back once they reach about six inches (3-4 weeks from germination, though check them frequently for tenderness and harvest once the lower stems start to stiffen) and re-sow if your planting schedule permits. Sowing pea seeds for the purpose of harvesting them as shoots eliminates two problems at once: you won’t be checking the growth of those you planted for pod harvest and you can easily snip a handful or two of perfectly tender shoots all at once.
When those crunchy pods do arrive, in the garden or at market, know they are an ideal nutritional package: high protein, healthy fats, a rich assortment of vitamins. Peas are best when harvested early in their pod-forming stage and when eaten fresh, before their sweetness turns to starch, which continues even after harvest. For optimum flavor and nutritional benefits, keep a fresh and steady supply on hand.