Peas are grown to be used either “fresh” or dried. In fact, growing Peas for drying was the main reason for growing them up until recently, give or take a few hundred years. Even at the court of Louis XIV, it was still considered quite — shall we say revolutionary? — to eat fresh Peas. Because Peas can be dried reliably and easily, they became a useful form of reliable protein during winters, which is why many old traditional recipes use Dried Peas. Dried Peas are available whole or split, and are either green or yellow.
There are two types of fresh Peas. Garden or “English” Peas have to be shelled and you discard the shells. “Sugar snap” and “snow Peas”, you can eat the pod. Though these are used a lot in Chinese cooking, they were actually introduced to China by the Dutch.
When buying fresh Peas in the pod, look for fresh stems on them. Avoid any limp, dry or yellowing pods.
Fresh Peas are preserved through canning or freezing. Canned Peas are a duller green because their chlorophyll is destroyed by the heat of the canning process. Both fresh and frozen Peas are superior to canned for nutrition and flavour — before cooking, that is. Fresh Peas, however, start to degrade in nutritional value within a few hours of being picked, before the shipping to market and time on store shelves even begins. And as soon as they’re picked, like corn, Peas begin converting the sugar in them which makes them sweet into starch, so the taste degrades as well. Frozen Peas, which are frozen within an hour or two of harvesting before nutritional degrading begins, are therefore one of the best forms in which to eat “fresh” Peas, unless you are able to run them from the back garden to your pot.
As a general rule for shelling peas, count on the yield of shelled peas being half or slightly less than half the weight of the peas in the pod that you started out with.
French “petits pois” are simply young Garden Peas, not another variety.
Mushy Peas are just ordinary Peas treated with alkali to make them soft and starchy, so they will “moosh” well.
Shell Garden Peas just before cooking. Wash, snap the stem off, pull down the string and press the pod at the seams so that it will pop open. Scape the Peas out with a finger, then discard the pod. You can then steam them for about 5 minutes, or boil for about 3 minutes. Don’t add any salt to the water when boiling Peas, whether fresh or frozen, as it will toughen the Peas. Instead use a bit of mint for flavour, a pinch of sugar for sweetness, or a dash of lemon juice in the water to help preserve the colour.
Peas have per 100g (3 ½ oz or about ½ cup) about 52 calories when cooked. They are a good source of protein and fibre. They contain vitamin C and vitamin B1 (thiamin). Peas with a good whole grain brown rice make a complete protein — thus the classic island dish of Peas and rice in the Caribbean.
1 cup shelled Peas = 8 oz (225g) unshelled = 1 (450g) pound unshelled
2 cups shelled Peas = 10 oz (280g) frozen
2 cups shelled Peas = 16 oz (450g) tinned, drained
1 cup cooked = 3 ½ oz = 100g
1 400 ml (14 oz) tin, drained = 1 ½ cups
Refrigerate fresh Peas in their pod unwashed in a plastic bag up to 3 days. Never leave at room temperature, they degrade much faster.
To freeze, shell the pods, wash the peas, blanch for 1 ½ minutes, plunge into cold water bath to cool, then drain well, pack and freeze up to 1 year.
Store dried Peas in airtight glass or ceramic jars.
Peas may have been domesticated as early as the Stone Age, in Turkey. The pea was very popular because it could be reliably dried, stored and re-hydrated.
While excavating Troy, archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann found 440 pounds (200 kg) of dried Peas in storage jars. He cooked some up and found them edible. The Greeks and Romans grew Peas.
Peas were generally eaten as a dried food up until someone in Europe in the 1600’s decided to try eating them fresh, at which point fresh Peas became a great sensation. It became fashionable for Parisian ladies to eat a few fresh Peas after dinner or before going to bed to aid digestion.
The old nursery rhyme (below) shows just how many Peas we used to eat, and for how long we have been doing it: Pease pudding appeared on the tables of both rich and poor since Roman times. The Pease pudding was so thick it could be eaten with the fingers or spread on bread.
Peas were brought to North America with the colonists.
Literature & Lore
Some people with posher accents in England are said to have vowels like just-snapped Peas.
Pease was originally the singular form of the word pea (the ‘se’ at the end was dropped in the mid 1700’s); thus the poem:
Pease pudding hot
Pease pudding cold
Pease pudding in the pot
Nine days old
Stephens, M.J., A pea is a pea, or IS IT? Vegetable Production & Marketing News. Extension Horticulture, Texas Cooperative Extension, The Texas A&M University System. December 2001.