Now is the time to embrace the emerald green wonders of spring: Sweet peas. Fresh, sweet green peas are one of the few vegetables found only in their brief season. Beyond spring, fresh pod peas (aka shelling peas or English peas) barely exist.
For a few brief spring weeks, fresh shelling peas grace the bins at farmers markets and produce stands ready for shucking. If you’ve not cooked fresh peas, know that their sweetness and deep, green vegetable flavor are like none other. Like sweet corn, the natural sugars in the peas change as they age — even day-old peas have a different sweetness than fresh picked. If you’re into it, buy both and cook them side by side. You’ll taste the difference.
Shucking peas sounds like a romantic job best done on the porch rocking chair. True, but shucking during a Netflix marathon works, too. Simply hold the pea pod with the seam toward you and pop it open at the end opposite where it was attached to the vine. Use your fingertip to dislodge the peas into a bowl. It takes nearly 1-1/2 pounds of peas in the pod to yield a cup of shelled peas.
I must confess that I am a fan of the containers of shucked peas some market vendors sell — super time-saving. I can toss them in my weekend post-farmers market omelet, or have a fresh green vegetable on the table in less than 5 minutes. That is, if I don’t munch on them all in their raw state of spring goodness.
No shucking required for spring’s other pea offerings: Snow peas and sugar snaps. Snow peas, aka Chinese peas, are flat, pale green and picked and eaten before the peas inside plump. Sugar snaps likewise, are consumed pod, pea and all. Both are much beloved for their crunch and readily available in small bags in most grocery stores. Do scoop them up when they appear at the farmers market — they have a superior crunch and sweetness to their packaged brethren.
Except for the very smallest snow peas and sugar snap peas, you’ll need to string this type of pea. Simply hold the pea at the end that was connected to the vine and pull down to remove the string. The effort pays off when the peas are eaten raw as a snack or sauteed or steamed as a vegetable side.
We tuck more pea flavor into salads and stir fries with fresh pea shoots (aka pea greens). The tender shoots come from a cultivar of snow peas and are used widely in Chinese cooking. Due to their popularity with chefs, fresh pea shoots now appear at farmers markets and specialty stores in addition to Asian markets. I buy pea shoots, which are extremely fragile, the day I plan to cook them — if kept dry and refrigerated they can last a day or two at most. I like to use small, delicate-tasting leaves and tendrils in salads and as a garnish. If the shoots sport large leaves and thickish stems, saute them in olive oil — they wilt like spinach — for about a minute.
Life is good when I have all the pea options before me — so I cook them together and season them lightly with spring herbs, plenty of sweet butter and coarse salt. Peas in abundance mean a simple soup enhanced with the dark green flavors (and occasionally some heat) from a poblano chile. Serve the soup hot with fresh cheese or cold with hot pepper sauce.
Dinner at Chicago’s Michelin-starred Band of Bohemia inspired the recipe for skirt steak with peas and greens. The brewpub served the steak on a bed of grits. Brilliant textural contrast with the thinly sliced beef and delicate greens. Use pea shoots in the greens mix when they are available. Enjoy this dish with a citrusy sour beer or a wheat beer.
Of course, frozen peas can stand in for all the fresh peas in these recipes.
You’ll need about 3 pounds peas in the pod to yield 2 cups shucked peas. Variations on this simple recipe include swapping out the butter for extra-virgin olive oil and/or changing the fresh dill to fresh basil. Caramelized sliced onions or pearl onions are gorgeous added to the cooked and buttered peas. I love flakes of Maldon sea salt here; of course, ordinary table salt works too.
Plenty of Peas with Butter and Herbs
Preparation time: 10 minutes
Cooking time: 5 minutes
- 1-1/2 cups (6 ounces) fresh snow peas, trimmed of their strings, cut crosswise in half or thirds
- 2 cups (6 ounces) small sugar snap peas, trimmed of their strings, optional
- 2 cups (about 10 ounces) freshly shucked green peas (English peas)
- 3 to 4 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
- 2 tablespoons chopped fresh chives
- 1 tablespoon chopped fresh dill
- Maldon sea salt to taste
Heat a medium saucepan filled with salted water to a boil. Add the snow peas and the sugar snap peas. Cook, 1 minute. Add the shucked peas. Cook just until the peas turn bright green and lose a touch of their crunch, 1-1/2 to 2 minutes more. Drain well; return to the pan.
Add half of the butter to the pan; swirl to melt it into the peas. Stir in the chives, dill and a pinch or two of salt. Top with remaining butter. Serve right away.
Makes 4 to 6 servings.
Nutrition information per serving (for 6 servings): 113 calories, 6 g fat, 4 g saturated fat, 15 mg cholesterol, 11 g carbohydrates, 5 g sugar, 4 g protein, 118 mg sodium, 4 g fiber
Enjoy this soup warm topped with crumbled fresh cheese. Or, serve it cold in small bowls drizzled with extra-virgin olive oil and hot pepper sauce. Use vegetable broth and unsweetened, thick canned coconut milk for a vegan version.
Pea and Poblano Soup with Queso Fresco
Preparation time: 20 minutes
Cooking time: 25 minutes
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 medium poblano chile, cored, seeded, diced
- 1 medium (6 ounces) red potato, peeled, diced
- 1/2 small yellow onion, finely chopped, about 1/2 cup
- 3 cups vegetable or chicken broth
- 2 cups (about 10 ounces) freshly shucked small green peas (English peas)
- 2 to 4 tablespoons unsweetened coconut milk or heavy (whipping) cream
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 cup crumbled queso fresco, farmers cheese or feta, optional
- 2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro
Heat oil in medium saucepan over medium heat until hot. Add poblano, potato and onion. Saute until onion is fork-tender, about 5 minutes.
Stir in broth; simmer, covered, 15 minutes. Stir in peas; simmer, uncovered, stirring often, 3 minutes. Puree soup as smooth as you like with an immersion blender (or in small batches in a loosely covered blender and then return soup to saucepan).
Heat soup to a simmer. Stir in coconut milk or cream to taste. Season with salt. Serve in small bowls topped with crumbled cheese and cilantro. Or cool to room temperature, then refrigerate until chilled. Serve cold, with the garnishes.
Makes 4 (1 cup each) servings.
Nutrition information per serving: 229 calories, 11 g fat, 3 g saturated fat, 11 mg cholesterol, 26 g carbohydrates, 8 g sugar, 8 g protein, 546 mg sodium, 6 g fiber
Ginger-Seared Skirt Steak with Peas, Spring Greens and Creamy Grits
Preparation time: 25 minutes
Standing time: 20 minutes
Cooking time: 20 minutes
- 3 small cloves garlic, crushed
- 2 teaspoons finely grated fresh ginger (or refrigerated ginger paste)
- 1 pound well-trimmed skirt steak, cut into 6-inch lengths
Sour cream grits:
- 3 cups low-salt chicken broth
- 1 cup stone-ground white grits, such as Bob’s Red Mill
- 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 2 to 3 tablespoons sour cream
- Freshly ground black pepper
- 1 cup (about 5 ounces) freshly shucked small green peas (English peas)
- 4 cups assorted baby lettuces
- 1 to 2 cups tender young pea shoots, if available
- 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
- 1-1/2 teaspoons white wine vinegar or sherry vinegar
- Oil in a sprayer
- Chopped fresh chives
Mix garlic, ginger and 1/2 teaspoon salt in a small bowl. Use the back of a spoon to lightly smear the mixture over both sides of the steak pieces. Let stand at room temperature, about 20 minutes.
Meanwhile, for grits, heat broth and 1/2 teaspoon salt to a boil in a medium saucepan. Stir in grits. Cook and stir nearly constantly with a flat-bottomed wooden spoon until boiling and thickened, about 5 minutes. (A spatter guard will help keep the stove clean.) Remove from heat; cover pan and let stand 5 minutes. Stir in butter and sour cream. Season with pepper. Cover and keep warm.
Heat a small saucepan filled with salted water to the boil. Add the peas; cook just until they turn bright green and lose a touch of their crunch, 1-1/2 to 2 minutes. Drain well; allow to cool.
Put lettuces and pea shoots into a medium bowl. Have oil and vinegar nearby.
Heat a large nonstick or well-seasoned grill pan over medium-high heat until hot. Spray the steaks with oil and add to grill pan in a single, uncrowded layer (work in batches if necessary). Cook, without turning, until bottom is golden, about 3 minutes. Use tongs to flip. Cook steaks until golden and medium-rare (no more), another 2 to 3 minutes depending on thickness. Transfer to a cutting board to rest for a few minutes. Cook remaining steak. Use a very sharp knife to cut steak across the grain into thin slices.
To serve, spoon hot grits onto the center of warm plates. Arrange steak slices over grits. Toss greens with olive oil, vinegar, salt and pepper to taste. Pile over steak. Sprinkle with peas and chives. Serve.
Makes 4 servings.
Nutrition information per serving: 526 calories, 24 g fat, 10 g saturated fat, 103 mg cholesterol, 43 g carbohydrates, 4 g sugar, 35 g protein, 293 mg sodium, 5 g fiber
Dinner at Home is a Tribune News Service column from JeanMarie Brownson, a former Tribune test kitchen director and current culinary director for Frontera Foods and Frontera Media Productions. She has co-authored three cookbooks with Rick Bayless, including “Mexico -- One Plate at a Time,” winner of the James Beard Foundation’s International Cookbook Award.