Plucked From The Vine

Right from the pod is the tastiest way to enjoy the first peas of spring

April 30, 2008|By Brad Schleicher | Brad Schleicher,Sun reporter

Imagine making a fashion statement by eating fresh peas.

Although the idea may seem silly today, indulging in little green legumes was all the rage in 17th-century Europe. It was so popular that it sparked commentary from the court of King Louis XIV.

In 1696, according to The Penguin Companion to Food by Alan Davidson, Madame de Maintenon, the king's second wife, wrote: "There are some ladies who, having supped, and supped well, take peas at home before going to bed at the risk of an attack of indigestion. It's a fashion, a craze."

Although peas are no longer quite so in vogue, their unique flavor is still appreciated.

For Coleen McCarty of the Baltimore City Farms Program, there's nothing like enjoying fresh peas plucked directly from the vine.

Whether she's enjoying the subtle burst of sweetness from a shelled English pea or the delightful crunch of a snow or sugar snap pea, these delectable green veggies are a late April treat when the first pods develop on the pea plants in her Druid Hill Park garden.

"You haven't experienced a true pea until you eat one right after picking," says McCarty. "When people think of peas, they think of a can or a frozen bag."

McCarty says it's understandable why so many have experienced canned and frozen peas from a supermarket instead of fresh ones. By nature, peas aren't the most resilient produce. Unless you have access to your own pea plants, freshly picked peas are hard to come by because of a short growing season in this region.

According to McCarty, pea plants grow best in cool climates (ideally in 45-degree weather) when the ground has been fully thawed. She says the first pea harvests can come as early as mid-April, depending on the weather. After summer heat has waned, a surge of cool weather in the beginning of fall may allow a small pocket of time for one last harvest before winter.

"Mid- to late March is a good time for planting your seeds, as long as the weather is forgiving," says McCarty. "Your plants should be OK until about late June, when the weather can become too hot for the vines to handle."

The weather on Maryland's Eastern Shore is a bit more forgiving for pea plants.

Thomas Handwerker, director of the Small Farm Institute at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore, says that the Shore reaps the benefits of being in close proximity to the Atlantic Ocean.

"Peas are the type of crop that need a moderate climate," says Handwerker. "Without long periods of extreme cold or hot, we're able to plant earlier and harvest later."

A short flavor life also contributes to the limited availability of fresh peas.

According to Melissa's Great Book of Produce by Cathy Thomas, English peas can start losing their sweetness as soon as four hours after the peas are harvested. The loss of sweetness comes when the peas' sugar content starts turning to starch, giving the peas a milder flavor.

The process of flash-freezing, which has greatly increased their availability, helps preserve the sugar content and shelf life of fresh peas.

But preservation methods have their downsides. McCarty says that even when peas are flash-frozen shortly after being removed from the vine, the required defrosting and cooking can adversely affect a pea's overall texture.

"If you're going to get frozen peas, go for English peas instead of snow or sugar snaps," says McCarty. "But even for English types, they just don't compare to fresh."

If you don't have a garden or a pea plant, executive chef Jesse Sandlin of Abacrombie restaurant says farmers' markets are a good source because of how carefully peas are handled and maintained before appearing at the market.

Joan Norman of One Straw Farm in White Hall picks her sugar snap peas the night before bringing them to the market and immediately puts them in a cooler to preserve the crunch and sweetness as much as possible.

"Sugar snaps have the most sugar content and can hold up well even after they are picked," says Norman. "Peas are perfect on their own, plain and uncooked, but can also be a good addition to any meal."

Chef Sandlin couldn't agree more. As a special on her menu, she makes a fresh English pea soup, shelling the peas before blanching them with cream, salt and pepper. She says even the shells can be cooked with a mirepoix to make a broth for later.

"The difference between fresh and frozen, even when used as a part of a recipe, is off the charts," says Sandlin. "They just aren't the same animal."

Aside from the issues of shelf and flavor life, Sandlin says a great amount of labor goes into using fresh English peas in recipes. It takes two full cases of shelled peas to make two gallons of her soup.

"It takes a while, so I am lucky that I'm at a small restaurant and can sit and shell two cases of peas after Sunday brunch," she says. "In bigger restaurants, that might not be the case."

While Sandlin is quick to use peas in recipes, she's a bit more careful when offering them as a stand-alone vegetable.

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