When you hear of a child hating vegetables, often peas are the culprit getting the unwarranted attention. How could anyone dislike this sweet green orb of healthy goodness? Not only is this ingredient easy to cook, but you can eat them raw, frozen, in soup, and tossed cold into a salad. With so many ways to enjoy peas, it's time to learn more about this healthy food staple.
What Are Peas?
While we eat peas as a vegetable, the actual green sphere is a seed, which is why it's inside the pod. Not only are we chowing on seeds, but technically, the pod is a fruit since it comes from a flower and contains seeds. So there you go, peas are fruit, and here we have been putting them in the vegetable aisle all these years.
The history of this agricultural favorite starts in the Mediterranean basin, where researchers believe peas first grew wild. It was here the Neolithic Revolution helped cultivate this plant, creating crops of peas that were often left on the vine until they hardened as field peas, the same stuff you use in dishes like split pea soup. In England during the 17th-century peas got popular in a new way—as fresh garden peas. These were younger, more tender, and considered high class, especially when you compared them to field peas.
Eventually, green peas became popular in the United States, and famously Thomas Jefferson grew them—30 cultivars to be exact. With the invention of canning and freezing, eating fresh and young peas became so easy most people don't realize they aren't consuming a mature plant. You can still get dried field peas for soaking and to put in soups, but most eaters prefer the bright green garden variety.
Today peas are in cuisines all across the world. In India, you see them in curry. If you head to Sweden, you get peas in soup called ärtsoppa. Chinese stir-fry features the seeds, the pods, and sometimes the pea shoots as well. Ethiopians eat yellow split peas in a dish called yekik alicha, and in Hungary, you may see this ingredient served with dumplings. In short, everyone eats peas in some form or another, except maybe your preschooler.
What to Do With Peas
The better question is what can't you do with peas. This versatile vegetable can be used in so many ways you'll never run out of new things to create. For example, mash cooked peas up for baby food or combine with mint and lemon for a bright and fresh-tasting adult-friendly side dish. Whole peas are great alone, coated with butter, and boosted with parmesan and a dash of pepper. Take raw peas and sprinkle onto a salad for a pleasing sweet crunch. Frozen peas are beloved by kids in the summer and also cool you off in a healthy way, kind of like nature's tiny ice pops.
Snow peas get sauteed whole in many Asian dishes, but they also can get tossed with whole wheat pasta in new American cuisine. English pea risotto is another popular spring dish, which utilizes the large shelling peas growing at the time. Snap peas taste great raw as a fresh snack. Make peas into a flavorful pesto, and if your spring proves chilly, add a bunch to a pot of chicken soup. Pretty much however you want to eat peas, there's a recipe and a good way to do so.
What Do Peas Taste Like?
Peas offer a pleasing sweetness wrapped into a crunchy little ball. The different types will have varying levels of this nuance, with fresh sweet peas being the most candy-like. Shelling peas prove drier and taste best cooked. Snap and snow peas are sweet with a slight bitterness and can be eaten raw or gently heated. The best way to taste the true flavor of a pea is by eating fresh or frozen varieties. The canned type tends to be a little mushy and lose a lot of the pleasing notes, so avoid them when you can. Dried field peas have a deeper flavor, warmer and less green. This is why this type of pea is best as a soup or in a stew.
Throw a handful of fresh or frozen peas into just about any dish you want, they blend in nicely with most flavors. Or, try out one of these three recipes and discover a new way to cook and eat this popular vegetable.
Where to Buy Peas
Anywhere you go, you can find peas, be that they're frozen, in a can, or fresh. The former two ways prove more popular, given they last longer, though, if you find pea pods in the grocery or farmers' market, jump on the chance to get some. Usually, the raw, untreated pods come out in the springtime, which is why you start seeing them added to all sorts of seasonal dishes.
When buying fresh peas, look for pods that have bulges in the center, that way you know the green orb inside is ripe and ready for eating. There are different types of peas to look for too. Snap peas and snow peas can and should be eaten whole—pod and all. Shelling peas are more what we think of when shopping for peas pod-free, and these can be fun to pop open and pluck the balls out.
If you can, skip canned and go for frozen peas, you'll be happier in the end since the canned version can get a little soggy, and any store with a freezer section should have bags of the vegetable. You may see some labeled petite peas, but don't be fooled as there's nothing special about this type it's just a basic pea and as good as the next. It's good to check the date on the package, while frozen peas taste great, an old bag may have dehydrated peas inside, and those prove dull and unappetizing.
If you buy frozen peas, keep them in the freezer. Once opened, seal the bag after taking a portion to prevent freezer burn and put it back on ice. Canned peas have no special instructions, though, as many canned foods, it's best to keep them in a cool spot in the house, and any opened cans can be emptied into a sealed container and kept in the refrigerator. Fresh peas can be kept in the pods for around a week or two. After that, you need to shell them. As long as they stay cool, they will last for weeks out of the pods.
Nutrition and Benefits
Keep in mind peas have a lot of starch—they are a fruit, after all. There's also a lot of nutrients in this ingredient, including vitamins A, B6, K, and C, phosphorus, magnesium, iron, copper, zinc, and lutein, which aids in eye health. Peas will also add a boost of fiber and protein into your diet, and they're easy on most digestive systems.
Basically, all peas look the same, but there are tons of types of this food under the P. sativum name. Mostly you want to differentiate peas by the garden variety, snow peas and snap peas. The former is the kind of pea you see all over, frozen in bags, gracing the cafeteria vegetable section, and in most foods. It's the green ball your kid shoots across the table and the one bobbing in a bowl of soup.
Snow peas tend to show up in Asian cuisine and showcase the whole pod, which is tender and easy to eat, unlike the garden peas' shell. These whole peas are flat, and you can see the bump of the small seeds nestled inside. Snap peas can also be eaten whole, but this cylindrical ingredient tends to have baby seeds inside that are so small, you may not notice them. Munch on them as a healthy snack and enjoy the crunch.