Let’s get right to the point: In the vegetal world, asparagus gets the lion’s share of springtime love.
Which strikes me as an insult to our small, well-rounded friend, the pea.
Growing up next to Mom’s massive garden, peas came in one (and only one) variety. If sugar snaps and snow peas were available in seed catalogs of the time, they never made an appearance.
For us, the wonders of spring were proper English peas: those charmingly plump pods equipped with a natural zipper: the kind where you snap off the stem, tug on the string, then finish the job by running a fingernail down the seam.
Mother often dispatched me to the back porch to shell those just-plucked beauties.
She must have known better.
As a child, I was a produce pirate.
Surely, my unsolicited romps through the raspberry patch left scratches on my arms. And those pinkish stains on my shirt were a dead giveaway that tomatoes that should have made it to the table had been gleefully devoured in the yard, with juice dribbling down my chin.
Needless to say, the smallest, sweetest peas I was assigned to shuck were plopped immediately into my mouth.
(I’d like to think I was doing Mom a favor. Really, was it practical to bother with those petite little orbs when feeding a family of eight?)
But I digress. This nostalgic little romp through the pea patch is but an infinitesimally minor blip in the long human love affair with this very versatile vegetable.
The earliest archaeological traces of the legume date back to the Stone Age in Greece, Syria, Turkey and Jordan. By 4800 B.C., they were cultivated in Egypt’s Nile Delta, and by 3000 B.C., they’d made the journey to Central Europe, as evidenced by digs at Bronze Age settlements in Switzerland.
Early farmers grew what we think of as field peas. (Think split peas.) Protein-rich and adaptable to many climates, dried peas could be stored for long periods, sustaining common classes right through the Middle Ages.
Preparations varied from region to region. In India, they formed the backbone of dals. In England, they became “pease” porridge — which, if you believe the nursery rhyme-cum-juvenile hand-slapping game — was consumed hot, cold and “in the pot, nine days old.”
Eating green, immature peas is a relatively modern phenomenon. Italians are credited with developing fresh-friendly cultivars sometime in the 16th century. Early writings dubbed them “a fashion, a craze.” But while those first spring peas may have been a luxury, they were far from a fad.
Evidence shows they shot through Europe like wildfire. And our own founding father/founding horticulturist, Thomas Jefferson, wasn’t alone in his passion for English garden peas.
According to the Monticello website, he planted 15 types, and farmers in his neck of Virginia held annual contests to see who could cultivate the first peas of spring.
Despite Jefferson’s advantageous southern exposure — and a battalion of slaves to fret over his terraced two-acre garden — he generally lost to a neighboring plantation.
Guess even the guy who penned the Declaration of Independence and triumphed in our nation’s third presidential election can’t win ’em all.
But we can.
Today, a delicious pea crop can perpetually await us in our freezers.
In recipes, fresh and frozen peas are largely interchangeable. And because peas begin to deteriorate within hours — rather than days — of picking, peas picked at peak and quickly frozen are arguably fresher than fresh ones.
Which brings us full circle: The fact that we can enjoy this delicate vegetable year-round is probably the reason we no longer associate it with spring.
Still, if I had a garden, I’d be growing peas. And when I spy the first peas at farmers markets, I’ll be gathering up a bunch.
I’ll quickly dispatch a child to shell them. In my case, the “child” will likely be me.
I’ll toss the smallest ones in my mouth, without guilt, and conjure up springs in which my mother and grandmother and countless generations before them relished this verdant sign that summer was just around the corner.
Potage Saint-Germain (Fresh Pea Soup)
Serves 4 to 5 as first course; 2 to 3 as lunch main course.
Note: This soup takes its name from a suburb of Paris, where peas were once cultivated for market gardens. It tastes nothing like split pea soup — and everything like fresh peas, reduced to sweet, velvety voluptuousness. A nice starter for a spring dinner or the main event at lunch. From “French: Delicious Classic Cuisine Made Easy,” by Carole Clements and Elizabeth Wolf-Cohen.
• 2 to 3 tbsp. butter, divided
• 2 or 3 shallots, finely minced (about 3 tbsp.)
• 2 c. water
• 3 c. peas, fresh or frozen
• Salt and pepper to taste
• 3 tbsp. cream, optional
• Slivered green onions, fresh chives, tarragon or mint, for garnish
Melt 2 tablespoons butter in a Dutch oven, or heavy saucepan over low to medium heat. Add shallots, and sauté until tender and fragrant.
Crank up the heat. Add 2 cups water and peas, along with a generous pinch of salt and a couple of grinds of pepper. Bring to a boil, then lower heat and simmer for 10 to 15 minutes, or until peas are tender.
Use an immersion blender to process peas and their liquid until very smooth. (You can also do this in a standard blender, but be cautious: Proceed in batches, and beware that hot liquids can become explosive under pressure.)
Taste for seasoning, adding more salt and pepper, if you like. To make it more lush, consider another pat of butter. A splash of cream adds richness and rounds out the flavor. Serve as is, or garnish as you like.
Nutrition information per 1/5 appetizer serving:
Calories 120 Fat 5 g Sodium 100 mg
Carbohydrates 15 g Saturated fat 3 g Total sugars 6 g
Protein 5 g Cholesterol 10 mg Dietary fiber 5 g
Exchanges per serving: 1 starch, 1 fat.
Bruschetta With Peas
Serves 4 to 6 as appetizer.
Note: The most difficult part is hauling out the food processor — the spread whizzes together in minutes. If serving this on the patio, toast the bread on an outdoor grill, set the bruschetta spread on the table, and let guests help themselves. Adapted from Giada De Laurentiis, on the Food Network.
• 1 medium clove garlic
• 10 oz. (about 2 c.) peas, defrosted if frozen
• 1/2 c. grated Parmesan cheese, or more to taste
• 1/3 c. olive oil, plus more as needed
• Salt and pepper
• 8 to 12 slices baguette or ciabatta bread, about 1/2 in. thick
• Sun-dried tomatoes to garnish
Fit your food processor with the chopping blade. Rough chop garlic, then pulse in peas and Parmesan. With the processor running, drizzle in 1/3 cup olive oil. Scrape down the sides of bowl, add salt and pepper to taste, then whir again to bring it all together. Transfer to a small bowl, then set aside.
Lightly brush both sides of bread with olive oil. Toast on a stovetop grill pan until golden, then flip and repeat with second side. (Alternatively, you can lay bread on a baking sheet and toast in a 400-degree oven for about 8 minutes, flipping halfway through.)
Spread warm toasts with pea mixture, and garnish with strips of sun-dried tomatoes.
Nutrition information per 1/6 serving:
Calories 250 Fat 17 g Sodium 300 mg
Carbohydrates 17 g Saturated fat 4 g Total sugars 3 g
Protein 8 g Cholesterol 6 mg Dietary fiber 2 g
Exchanges per serving: 1 starch, ½ medium-fat protein, 3 fat.
Pasta With Arugula and Peas
Serves 2 to 3 (recipe is easily doubled).
Note: This is my take on a dish described by Frances Mayes in “Under the Tuscan Sun.” She uses spaghetti. I like pappardelle, or a short, tubular noodle like penne. She calls for heavy cream; I lighten it up with half and half. Her recipe contains no garlic, but I think the dish screams for it. And while Mayes calls only for arugula, I like to up the vegetable quotient with a generous handful of peas. (Sometimes, I’ll also toss in some chopped asparagus.) In other words, this formula is highly flexible; feel free to bend it to your will. When making pasta, I generally boil the noodles on a burner next to the sauce. When noodles are al dente, they get scooped out and stirred into the sauce. The starchy water that clings to the pasta is often enough to add body — if not, you’ve got a pot of pasta water conveniently standing by. The sauce comes together in less time than it takes to boil pasta. If it’s difficult to find pancetta (Italian style bacon that’s been salt-cured rather than smoked), you can substitute smoked bacon. It produces a dish that’s different, but absolutely delicious.
• 8 oz. pappardelle (or other favorite pasta)
• Olive oil
• 1 large garlic clove, minced
• 4 oz. pancetta, diced (see Note)
• 3/4 c. half and half
• 2 c. or more loosely packed arugula, roughly chopped
• 1/2 c. peas
• Salt and pepper to taste
• 1/2 c. grated Parmesan, plus more to pass at the table
Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil and cook pasta according to package directions, just to al dente. (It will continue to cook in the sauce.)
Meanwhile, slick a large heavy pan (a high-sided 10- to 12-inch chef’s pan is ideal) with olive oil, and sauté garlic over low to medium heat until barely fragrant. Add pancetta and continue to sauté for a few minutes. Add half and half, bring to a simmer, then arugula and peas. Taste for salt and pepper. (Keep in mind that the cheese will add saltiness.) If your pasta is still cooking, lower the burner heat and keep the sauce warm until pasta is ready.
Add pasta to sauce along with the Parmesan, and raise heat slightly. Toss gently together until pasta is done to your liking and everything is heated through. If it seems dry, add a little pasta water. Serve at once, passing additional cheese at the table.
Nutrition information per 1/3 serving:
Calories 880 Fat 54 g Sodium 800 mg
Carbohydrates 72 g Saturated fat 21 g Total sugars 6 g
Protein 26 g Cholesterol 70 mg Dietary fiber 5 g
Exchanges per serving: 1 vegetable, 4½ starch, 1½ high-fat protein, 8½ fat.
Jo Marshall is a Minneapolis ad writer with an appetite for cooking, history and culture. Find her at jomarshall.com.