May 24 2012

A Pea and Legume Primer

Sugar snap peas, snow peas, shelling peas, and fava beans. As the calendar approaches June, your choices at the farmers' market grow exponentially each week. A mere month ago I was excited about the prospect of one farm selling early-season strawberries. Now, every farm that grows them has strawberries--and I should add that I'm still excited.

Along with strawberries and mid-season rhubarb, farms' tables are currently lined with tiny blue cartons heaped with legumes. If you quickly glance at the cartons, it's easy for the green pods to merge together--they're all roughly the same shade of green and vaguely the same cylindrical shape.

If you took French in high school, even if the years have chipped away at your conversational skills, you might still remember that legume is the French word for vegetable. The English word legume refers to vegetables whose seed pods split when they ripen. Legumes include everything from the aforementioned snap pea to navy beans, chickpeas, and green beans.

Of the four legumes currently in the spotlight at the farmers' market, you can eat the shells of two of them, and you must discard the shells of the other two. What about other differences? Read on...

Snow Peas & Sugar Snap Peas

Sugar snap and snow peas are sweet and tender. Contrary to common belief, snow peas originated in Holland, not China. Now culinarily associated with Chinese food, the snowpea didn't arrive in China until the 17th century.

I'm grouping sugar snap and snow peas together because a sugar snap pea is a cross between a snow pea and a shelling pea. This hybrid was perfected in 1979. A key visual difference between the two is that the pod of a snow pea is flat whereas the pod of a snap pea is rounded (some say like a fat canoe).

How to Buy: Look for snow and sugar snap peas peas with bright, tight skin, around 3 inches in length.

How to Use: To use, snip off the stem end and pull the string the runs down the side of the pod. The actual pea of a snow pea is very small and the pod can be eaten raw or cooked. A sugar snap can be eaten in the same way, or if the interior peas are big enough, you can shell them and eat them like garden peas. If you cook sugar snap or snow peas, do so very briefly-no more than 2 minutes. They respond best to steaming, stir-frying, or blanching.

How to Store: Store sugar snap and snow peas in the refrigerator in a ventilated plastic bag for up to 2 days. These legumes hate humidity, so keep the bag ventilated.

*Snow peas are pictured in the first three photos; sugar snaps in the final three photos.

Shelling Peas

A frozen pea, while not an imposter, is a weak substitute for a fresh one that's just been removed from its shell. In season shelling peas are one of those fresh food experiences that can't be replicated with a frozen equivalent. I eat frozen peas in the winter and enjoy them mixed into pastas and stir fries, always with a focus on adding flavor to them. Fresh peas don't need a flavor enhancement. After I shell them, I'm perfectly content to eat them raw. They're both snappy and tender. Perhaps no food captures the of a season more than the diminutive pea.

As English gardener Sarah Raven writes, young fresh peas are so sweet that all they need is a sprig of mint and a knob of butter.

How to Buy: Look for pea pods that are a vibrant shade of green and up to 4 inches long. Each pea pod will contain around 10 seeds. Avoid pods that are dull in appearance as this indicates a loss of moisture. Buy pods that don't rattle when you shake them; the peas inside the pods should fill them tightly. To buy enough peas to feed four people as a side dish, you'll need to purchase close to 3 pounds of unpodded peas.

How to Use: To shell peas, split the pod open along the seam and run your thumb under the peas to dislodge them (be sure to have a bowl under them). To boil peas, use a small amount of water and simmer for no more than 3 minutes.

How to Store: Try to use peas on the day or day after you buy them; the flavors deteriate quickly (the sugars convert to starch). If you have to store them overnight, store them in a plastic bag in your refrigerator. To prevent condensation, make sure the bag is open for the first several hours they're in the fridge. If you can't use them right away, pod, blanch, and freeze the peas for 2 months.

Fava Beans

If I had to pick a current favorite legume (somehow, I don't think anyone will ever ask me to), I'd choose favas. This choice has to do with the work needed to actually eat them, and the fact that despite the double shelling that's frequently needed, the taste is so incomparably tender and nutty that once I'm done eating the favas, I'm ready to go back to the market to buy a few more pounds of beans!

Fava beans, or as the English call them, broad beans, have been around for millenia and in fact, are the beans featured in "Jack and the Beanstalk". The unshelled beans are certainly the ugliest of the bunch. They resemble alien green beans--giant and bumpy. When you open the pod, you find beans lined up along a cushion of padding--like a long pillow for the beans.

How to Buy: Avoid pods with wrinkles; instead look for smooth, pale to medium green pods. Pods vary in length from 6-9 inches. Keep in mind that two lbs of fava beans makes about 1 1/2 cups of podded beans.

How to Use: Favas are very adaptable--you can saute, roast, or even fry them. When favas mature, the pod around the bean becomes chewy. After shelling the beans, simmer them until tender, drain and plunge into an ice bath, and then peel the light green coating off of the vibrant green bean. If you're adding the beans to a dish where they'll continue cooking, simmer only for 2-3 minutes.

How to Store: If you have to store them overnight, store them unshelled in a plastic bag in your refrigerator. To prevent condensation, make sure the bag is open for the first several hours they're in the fridge. If you pod the beans, you can freeze them for up to 3 months.