“I eat my peas with honey. I’ve done it all my life. It makes the peas taste funny, but it sticks them to my knife.” —Anonymous
Pisum sativum (both sweet peas with inedible pods, and snow peas—flat pods with small peas inside) is one of the eight Neolithic founder crops (otherwise known as primary domesticates). They are the eight plants that were the origins of agriculture on our planet. These crops were domesticated approximately 10,000 years ago by early Holocene farming communities that originated in the fertile crescent region (what is today southern Syria, Jordan, Israel, Palestine, Turkey, and the Zagros foothills of Iran). These crops consist of flax (for oil), three cereals and four pulses—one of which is the pea. Pisum macrocarpon, or snap peas, have edible pods with full-size peas.
In the 19th century, peas led to the principles of Mendelian genetics, which has served as the foundation of modern genetics. A Moravian monk, Gregor Johann Mendel experimented by hybridizing various pea plants he had been growing in the monastery garden—tall and dwarf, yellow and green, purple and white flowered, wrinkled and smooth types and other traits, 5,000 in all. Based on mathematical probability, he observed the resulting offspring and proved that each parent plant had an influence in the appearance of the offspring, and that the recessive trait only appeared if both parent plants contained the same. Mendel solved a major problem with Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution: how new traits were preserved and not blended back into population. Think of the Punnett square: BB, Bb, Bb, bb.
Pea pods are botanically a fruit since they contain seeds and develop from the ovary of a self-pollinating (pea) flower. They are part of the legume family which consists of plants that produce pods with seeds inside. Lentils, chickpeas, beans and peanuts are also legumes. They are grown as a cool season crop, most commonly green in color, but occasionally yellow or even purple. Seeds are planted as soon as the soil reaches 50 degrees and grow best between 55-64 degrees. There are two cultivars, low growing and vining. The vining cultivars grow thin tendrils from the leaves that coil around any available support from branches, metal fencing, and twine. There are other plants referred to as “peas”—the cowpea and black-eyed pea (Vigna unguiculata), both of which are technically beans.
A magical quality all legumes (including peas) have is that they create nitrogen in the soil. Peas contain symbiotic bacteria called rhizobia within their root system. By applying a soil inoculant consisting of a small amount of this bacteria prior to planting, this helps guarantee the roots develop the fixing nodules necessary to convert nitrogen in the air into ammonia or related molecular compounds that can be utilized by plants to support growth and protein synthesis. This natural fertilizer is made available once this plant dies in the ground. The remaining nitrogen in the root nodes is released into the soil. You will commonly see a heavy nitrogen-feeding crop like corn planted in a field the year after soybeans had been planted. Virtually every culture eats peas in one form or another. Peas are easy to grow, easy to store frozen or dried, packed with protein and vitamins, and are delicious. Cooking them by boiling or steaming breaks down the cell walls making them taste sweeter and the nutrients more bioavailable. One 100 calorie serving (about 1/2 cup of peas) contains more protein than an egg or a tablespoon of peanut butter. It also gives you more vitamin C than two apples. Peas also contain vitamin A, folate, thiamin, iron, and phosphorus. They can be eaten raw, shelled or with edible pods (snap peas). Dried peas are the basis of a British staple, mushy peas, a side dish served with fish and chips. In fact, the United Kingdom is the largest producer of peas for freezing.
Fresh Pea Soup
2 tablespoons unsalted butter or non-dairy butter substitute
2 cups chopped leek (both white and green parts)
1 cup chopped yellow onion
4 cups vegetable stock
5 cups shelled peas (you can use fresh or frozen)
1/2 cup chopped, fresh mint
1/2 cup greek yogurt or sour cream
Salt and pepper to taste
In a large saucepan, melt butter or butter substitute, add leeks and onions. Cook over medium heat for 8 to 10 minutes until tender. Add vegetable stock and increase heat and bring to a boil. Add peas for 3 to 5 minutes.Turn off the heat and add the mint, salt, and pepper. Using an immersion blender, puree the soup until smooth. Whisk in the yogurt or sour cream. Serve hot with toasty bread.
Grilled Peas in the Pod
1 quart English shelling peas (in the pod)
2 tablespoons olive oil
Zest of one lemon
Coarse sea salt
Wash and dry pea pods. Toss in a medium bowl with olive oil and coat evenly.
Prepare grill and preheat to high. Place pea pods into a grilling basket or on grill surface carefully so pods do not fall between the grates. Grill 5 minutes on each side. Using tongs, place pea pods onto a platter, sprinkle with lemon zest and salt. Eat peas edamame-style by scraping the peapod between your teeth.
Split Pea Hummus
1 cup dried split peas
2 cloves garlic
1/4 cup olive oil
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1/4 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon salt
Sort and wash dried peas. In a medium saucepan bring 4 cups of water to a boil. Add peas and garlic cloves. Bring to a boil, cover, and reduce heat to simmer 20 minutes then add salt, cover and cook an additional 15 minutes. Drain.
In a food processor or blender, add peas, olive oil, lemon juice and cumin. Pulse until smooth, scraping down the sides as needed. Serve room temperature with carrot slices, sweet peppers, cucumbers, and pita chips.