P eas peaked early.
All the rage in 17th- and 18th-century Europe, thanks to the development of tender, sweet varieties in England, they lost their luster by the 20th. Between the cafeteria cooks and the cans, both of which turned them to mush, peas became anything but chic.
The rise of their sexy edible-pod cousins, the snow pea and sugar snap pea, didn’t help. But I think the pea’s biggest problem is this: Farmers are hundreds, even thousands of miles from most of the markets that carry their produce, and peas aren’t good travelers.
Though the pods themselves can withstand picking, shipping and refrigeration, the peas inside suffer mightily. Hours after picking, the sugar that makes a pea so sweet starts to turn to starch. Pea pods picked one day, then shipped to supermarkets and sold days later, are sad shadows of the sweet packets that were pulled from the vine.
So in an age when fresh vegetables are touted as lifesavers and restaurants are built around the fresh-from-the-farm concept, I’m going to suggest something radical: Unless you’re on the farm or can buy right from the farmer, buy frozen peas.
I’m following the lead of my friend Kelly, who grew up on a farm. Confronted with an annual abundance of peas, her mom set up her own version of a processing plant. She shelled the peas, blanched them and put them right into the freezer.
“Mom wouldn’t think of keeping peas overnight,” Kelly said. “If we didn’t eat them that day, she froze them.”
Freezing not only packs in the sugar but also is extremely effective at retaining the nutrients. Along with their sweet flavor, peas are a good source of folate, vitamins A and C, phosphorus, iron and thiamine. All are preserved.
I know what you’re thinking: Reaching into the freezer for your “spring” peas isn’t as romantic as strolling through the farmers market. Frankly, if you have a good farm-fresh source, go for it.
When you find them, buy a big bagful and enjoy the old-fashioned pleasure of sitting outside on a warm afternoon, shelling to your heart’s content. If you can’t eat them soon, blanch and freeze.
Which brings me to the cooking. There’s no harm in a plate of plain steamed peas or in peas served with a lemon sauce or mint and butter, but I think they shine brightest as an addition to other dishes.
Peas and rice are a perfect match, immortalized by the Italians in the traditional risi e bisi. I love to sprinkle peas over chicken braised in white wine, or toss them in a butter and basil sauce to be served over ravioli. I pair them with seafood, potatoes, ham and, of course, lamb. Leftover lamb and sweet baby peas make for a great risotto.
Fresh peas barely need cooking and neither do the frozen ones, which can go straight from the freezer to whatever food you’re adding them to. As long as there’s enough cooking time left to defrost and warm them, just toss them in.
If they do need more cooking, or if you want to put them in something cold, steaming is the gentler choice, preserving flavor and nutrients. Once you steam them, sprinkle peas over a simple salad of poached salmon with greens and a light vinaigrette.
As for the choice between baby peas and the larger sweet peas, I let the cooking time dictate. When I’m adding peas to salads or throwing a handful into a soup or a pasta dish at the last minute, I choose the small ones. When I’m mixing peas into a rice dish or cooking them with something for 10 or 15 minutes, I choose larger ones.
It’s not the hippest vegetable. It’s not the stuff of poetry. It’s just a bag of sweet peas, free of their pods, flavor locked in, ready to go.
This potato salad gets a light touch from its mint dressing.
Use new potatoes when you can, because they are creamier and more equally sized. Boiling the potatoes unpeeled yields a drier potato that will absorb more of the flavorful dressing.
21/2-3 pounds red potatoes, preferably of similar size (unpeeled)
110-ounce package frozen baby peas (2 cups)
30large mint leaves, washed and patted dry
1/4cup white wine vinegar
1/2teaspoon ground celery seed
Freshly ground black pepper
1/2cup mild or light olive oil
Place the potatoes in a pot and cover with cold water. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Cook for 15 to 30 minutes, until they can be pierced easily with a fork or thin knife. (Cooking time will vary depending on the size of the potatoes.)
While the potatoes are cooking, steam or boil the peas for 3 to 4 minutes to defrost and heat. Drain and set aside.
Finely chop 20 of the mint leaves; there should be about 2 tablespoons. Roll up the remaining mint leaves and cut into very thin strips (chiffonade); reserve for garnish.
Whisk together the vinegar, finely chopped mint, celery seed, sugar, salt and pepper to taste in a large bowl. Add the oil in a slow stream, whisking constantly to create an emulsion. Taste and adjust seasoning as needed. Set aside.
Drain the potatoes and let cool for 10 to 15 minutes before peeling. Cut into 1/2- to 3/4-inch chunks and transfer to the bowl with the dressing.
Add the peas and toss to combine. Garnish with the thinly sliced mint leaves and serve.
The potato salad can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 1 day.
Makes 8 servings. Per serving: 275 calories, 4g protein, 34g carbohydrates, 14g fat, 2g saturated fat, 0g cholesterol, 9mg sodium, 4g dietary fiber.
Stephanie Witt Sedgwick
All in one pan: part paella, part jambalaya, part pilaf. The andouille brings a lot of flavor, the shrimp makes it seem like supper and the peas provide color, taste and a vegetable.
The ingredients come from the pantry or freezer for added convenience.
Medium-grain rice is used here because it gives the dish a creamy quality. Long-grain rice may be substituted. You’ll need a skillet that is at least 12 inches across.
1tablespoon olive or vegetable oil
1medium onion, finely chopped (about 1 cup)
1/2pound cooked smoked andouille sausage, cut in half lengthwise, then cut into 1/4-inch half-moon slices
1 1/2cups medium-grain white rice
Freshly ground black pepper
31/2cups low-sodium chicken broth or homemade chicken stock, warmed
1pound frozen, peeled and deveined medium or large shrimp, thawed
10ounces frozen sweet peas (about 2 cups)
Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the onion and cook for 3 to 4 minutes, until it has softened. Add the andouille and cook for a few minutes, stirring occasionally, until the slices start to brown. Add the rice and mix well; add salt and pepper to taste. Add the chicken broth or stock and let the mixture come to a boil, then reduce the heat to low, cover and cook for 10 minutes.
Scatter the shrimp over the rice, then scatter the peas over the shrimp. Cover and cook, adjusting the heat so the liquid remains at a low boil, for 20 to 25 minutes or until all of the liquid is absorbed and the rice is cooked. Stir to combine; serve hot.
Makes 8 servings.
Stephanie Witt Sedgwick
Stephanie Witt Sedgwick is a former Washington Post Food section recipe editor.