Tender and sweetly grassy in flavour, garden peas plucked straight from their tiny pouches are the ultimate Springtime treat.
They’re little pops of goodness too, brimming with fibre and protein, as well as vitamins C and K, thiamine and manganese.
Certain pea varieties have been astaple food since Ancient times and thought to have been enjoyed by Greeks and Romans in the classical period. Throughout the Middle Ages, dried peas were often cooked into thick broths and pease porridge (‘pease’ being the old English name). Rib sticking and hearty when cooked this way, they were also a valuable source of protein.
We can thank Italian gardeners in the 16th century for the tiny juicy peas we know and love today; they developed these varieties especially for eating fresh and small. They proved a hit. In 17th century France, snacking on raw fresh peas after dinner was, strangely, the height of fashion in certain aristocratic circles. This might have been because French peas were very expensive and to be the possessor of peas was a marker of wealth. Petit pois still carry a certain cachet, even they’re the same variety as standard peas. They’re simply harvested very young.
Sugar peas (also known as snap peas and mange-tout) are a variety of peas with one key difference. Standard peas are tucked away in pods that have a tough inner lining, which makes them inedible (although they can be used to add flavour to stocks and soups).Sugar peas, on the other hand, have tender pods that can be crunched and munched enjoyably along with the tiny peas inside.
The childish pleasure of devouring freshly picked raw peas, without adornment and before they’ve even reached a bowl, is hard to beat. But it isn’t the only way to enjoy them raw: peas marry beautifully with an array of other vibrant seasonal ingredients.
Peas are sweetly savoury, so they sing out for salty pairings. For simplicity, alternate mouthfuls of freshly podded peas with nibbles of salty umami-rich Parmesan or Pecorino cheese. Or scatter fresh raw peas into a bowl of salad leaves, add morsels of sharp feta, and unite the lot with a drizzle of spritely lemon dressing.
Cooked peas also marry beautifully with salty ingredients. Bacon or ham are wonderful, their smokiness adding another layer of compatible flavour.Try a French-style braise. Fry off some chopped bacon or lardons until the fat renders out, then add peas and perhaps some sliced lettuce, then pour over a little stock (you don’t want to cover the vegetables) and simmer until tender. Alternatively, sauté the peas gently in anchovy butter or simply blanch and shower with grated Parmesan.
Fresh peas are also excellent in risotto primavera, the lush springtime risotto dish that’s both hearty and fresh at the same time. Quickly blanch some peas, along with other verdant spring vegetables like asparagus and broad beans, then stir into the rice towards the end of cooking. Or make a warm potato salad. Roast new potatoes and lightly crush them with a potato masher. Add blanched peas (and any other green vegetables you fancy) to the pan, and gently toss with salsa verde, or mayonnaise spiked with garlic and herbs.
Fresh peas are wonderful but frozen are terrific too. Modern freezing technology means peas are snap frozen within moments of being harvested, so their flavour and nutrients have been locked in.Just cover with boiling water, leave to sit for 5 minutes, then drain and add a knob of butter and chopped fresh mint for a simple and tasty side dish. Or add cooked peas to mashed potato, along with some other veg and a handful of good strong grated cheese, then mould into patties and fry.For the quickest tastiest soup, simmer peas in stock until tender – add some mint sprig if you like – then blitz into soup and serve topped with a swirl of sour cream and a sprinkling of nigella seeds.
Pea pairings: asparagus; cured meats like bacon, ham and prosciutto; fresh herbs including tarragon, mint and dill; eggs; potatoes; oily fish.
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