CHICAGO, Illinois—I was an adult before I ever saw a pea in its pod. In my childhood, peas came in metal cans or cardboard boxes from the freezer. My first taste of fresh-from-the-garden peas was a revelation.
Fresh peas burst in your mouth, sweet and succulent, with satisfying sensation. They’re worth every bit of effort to grow and shuck.
Part of the Leguminosae family, the pea probably originated in Ethiopia during prehistoric times and spread to North Africa, Europe and Asia. Nearly every part of a pea plant is edible. The tender shoots and tendrils are popular in Asian stir-fries, African dishes and the hottest contemporary restaurant cuisine. They also make an excellent salad herb; the attractive flowers can be tossed in salads or candied. (However, do not confuse these with the flowers of ornamental sweet peas, Lathyrus odoratus, which are toxic.)
There are three basic kinds of peas. First is the garden, shelling or English pea, Pisum sativum, the regular, old-fashioned garden pea that most people regard as boring, at best, because they haven’t eaten it fresh.
These are the most satisfying to grow because the difference in the flavor of homegrown versus processed varieties is so profound. Even fresh peas from the grocer aren’t as good as peas straight from the garden.
Garden peas are classed as smooth- or wrinkle-seeded. The latter are sweeter and best for fresh eating, while smooth types contain more starch and thus are better for drying, freezing or canning. The French varieties, called petit pois, are half the size of regular peas and are supposed to be sweeter, too.
Fresh, young peas are tasty straight out of the pod and ambrosial when steamed lightly and buttered. Some people avoid the task of shelling by steaming the peas in their pods and then eating them by dipping the pods in melted butter and pulling them through their teeth.
Another type of pea is the snow pea, P. sativum var. macrocarpon, also called sugar peas, pea pods and, in French, mangetout, “eat all.” These are the peas often found in Chinese stir-fries. They’re also good raw with dip or in salads.
Snow peas are harvested before the pea seeds inside the pods begin to swell. They often have tough strings down the sides of the pods that must be removed before cooking. Everything else is edible.
The third type of pea is the snap pea. Like snow peas, they are completely edible, pod and all. However, these are harvested when the pea seeds are full-size, like English peas. While some cultivars require stringing, you can cook and eat the peas in their pods, or you can shell them and cook peas and pods separately. They also taste good raw.
Peas are cool-season crops, and traditionally, St. Patrick’s Day signals the time to sow peas, though I find early to mid-April a better time in Chicago.
Peas usually can be planted until about mid-May, although if you find that your soil is slow to dry out, your best bet is to prepare a planting bed in the fall. In spring, just rough up the surface with a rake and sow your seeds. If the soil is very wet, you may want to use seed treated with fungicide. And you can plant short-vined varieties in containers.
Give peas a head start by soaking the seed in water overnight before planting. It’s also a good idea to treat them with a bacterial inoculant, which improves vigor and helps fix nitrogen in the soil. I prefer the granular type that can be sprinkled directly on the soil.
A few old-fashioned, indeterminate pea varieties, like ‘Alderman’ and the original ‘Sugar Snap’, grow 4 to 6 feet tall and need strong trellises. Most modern cultivars are dwarfs that grow about 2 feet tall. For an extended harvest, you will have to make successive sowings or grow several varieties that mature at different times.
Harvest peas as soon as the pods are well-filled, for shelling and snap types, or just as the peas become visible, for snow peas. Don’t delay, or the peas will become hard and starchy and production will fall off.
Peas are subject to a variety of diseases, including pea root rot, powdery mildew, enation mosaic and fusarium wilt. The best controls are crop rotation and planting of resistant varieties. Early sowing helps, too.
Leah A. Zeldes is food editor of Chicago’s Lerner Newspapers.