By Dawn M. Swidorski
Peas are actually a legume which is a special class of vegetables that also includes beans and lentils. These are among the most versatile and nutritious foods on the planet. They are a good source of protein and can be a healthy and very affordable substitute for meat. Legumes are low in fat, contain no cholesterol, and are high in folate, potassium, iron and magnesium.
Peas were one of the first cultivated crops and are thought to have originated in Middle Asia and the central plateau of Ethiopia. They were known to the Greeks and Romans who grew 37 different varieties. By the Bronze Age (c.3000 BC) they were used by the inhabitants of Central Europe.
Gregor Johann Mendel (1822-1884), an Austrian monk, worked with peas in laying the foundation of the modern science of genetics.
Legumes are also interesting because of their ability to use “atmospheric nitrogen”. This is the result of a symbiotic relationship with a specific bacteria found in the root nodules. This greatly reduces fertilizer costs for farmers and gardeners who grow legumes. In addition, growing legumes contributes to sustainable farming practices because when used in a crop rotation they naturally replenish soil that has been depleted of nitrogen.
Peas are one of the few legumes that are also eaten “fresh” as a vegetable. Like most vegetables when it comes to peas there are many varieties – but the two main types are those with an inedible pod (garden) and those with an edible pod.
Garden pea varieties have smooth or wrinkled seeds. The smooth-seeded varieties have more starch than the wrinkled-seeded varieties are used to produce ripe seeds that are dried and split.
The wrinkled-seeded varieties are generally sweeter and harvested while still immature. The first sweet tasting pea was developed in the 1700’s by amateur plant breeder Thomas Edward Knight of England. Modern garden pea varieties can trace their lineage back to Knight’s selection; this is why garden peas were known as “English peas” well into the 20th century. Thomas Jefferson was known to cultivate as many as 30 varieties at Monticello.
This type is usually preferred for home use and the garden peas are what most Americans think of when they think of peas. Garden peas have pods that are difficult to eat to say the least, so the pea must be extricated from its shell. It makes them very work intensive if you happen to find them at farmer’s market – but a real delicacy.
As much as 40 percent of the sugar is converted into starch within the first few hours after picking so the sooner they are eaten the better. This is why frozen peas are a fine alternative to fresh. They are shelled and frozen within a few hours of picking preserving their sweetness. The first peas were frozen by Clarence Birdseye who invented the ‘plate froster’ to preserve foods in the 1920’s.
Edible Pod Peas. An equally delectable and much less labor intensive type of pea is the edible pod peas which include: snow peas, sugar snap peas and Chinese pea pods. They are low fiber pods with small wrinkled peas inside. The entire pod is eaten, cooked or raw. Snow peas are meant to be harvested as flat, tender pods before the peas inside develop at all.
All varieties of peas can be eaten as a side dish or included in casseroles, stews, soups, stir fry and more. They are very delicate so not matter what — be sure not to overcook them.