Not just an afterthought
by Robert Booz
The peas I grew up with came from the frozen food aisle of the grocery store, often from a bag sporting the goofy grin of a green giant in an awkwardly short shrubbery toga. The frozen spheroids, when they weren’t standing in for an icepack after a tumble from a tree or a runaway bicycle, made it to the table boiled or microwaved and tossed with margarine, salt, and pepper. Peas were decidedly not the main event, but a bland, mealy side dish. However, as a harbinger of all the life and flavor that summer fields have to offer, peas deserve to be much more than an afterthought.
Peas originated in the Mediterranean basin and the Near East. They still grow wild there today. The earliest evidence of cultivated peas can be dated to the Neolithic era, in the area now occupied by Jordan, Syria and Turkey. These peas however, are what we would call split peas, peas left to dry on the vine and harvested as a storage crop. There’s some debate about who first decided that eating the immature peas from the pod was a good and tasty idea, and as with many things culinary, there’s probably no one answer. We do know that it was the French who brought the practice to fashion around the 17th century and the English who had the most success in breeding new varieties well-suited to an early harvest, hence the “English” in English peas.
In spite of their well-established history, I didn’t feel enthusiastic about peas until I was working in restaurants in my early 20s. There’s a magical thing that happens in restaurant kitchens in the spring. The mise en place, the collection of ingredients that a cook keeps in front of him and pulls from to create a dish, suddenly transforms from a dull collection of browns, tans and whites to a rich palate of bright greens. A cool weather crop, peas are among the first offerings of verdant hope to find their way into a cook’s mise. This is how I really came to appreciate peas, to rejoice in their arrival, and to look forward to the essential pea-ness of their flavor.
I should also mention that it’s not really fair to be so hard on frozen peas. Peas actually freeze incredibly well, but the peas of my youth weren’t getting any favors by being microwaved or boiled and mixed with pre-ground black pepper and margarine. These days I’m of the opinion that the best way to enjoy peas, fresh or frozen, is sautéed directly in a bit of honest to goodness butter and topped with salt, pepper, and a touch of mint.
But there’s no reason to stop there. Peas, a legume rich in fiber, protein, vitamins (notably vitamin C), minerals (notably iron) and lutein (an antioxidant), make an excellent addition to soups, stews, pilafs, pizzas, pastas, braises—you get the idea. It’s an ingredient that lends itself, and finds itself, in just about every cuisine out there. So please, pass the peas!