Though thoroughly humble in terms of complex modern cuisines, the lowly green pea is one of civilization’s earliest cultivated crops.
Green, or garden, peas are actually a legume, closer to lentils than to other common garden vegetables. They grow above ground in a sturdy pod casing that protects the delicate spheres as they grow. A subtle taste sensation when picked and prepared fresh, modern grocery stores also stock green peas in cans, flash frozen or dried. They have become ubiquitous as an ingredient in most global cuisines, due to their availability and nutritional value (they are low in calories but high in fiber and protein content).
A Brief History of the Green Pea
Green peas grow wild in the Mediterranean region, and ancient remains dating to the late Neolithic Period (around 3000 BCE) have been found in the Middle East. Introduced to the New World and other regions throughout the globe by immigrating settlers, peas proved to be a hardy, easy to grow crop that could be stored in various ways over long winters. Fun Fact: American president Thomas Jefferson grew more than 19 cultivars of peas on his estate in Monticello.
In British history, peas are first mentioned after the Norman Conquest. In the 12th century, among other foods stored at the Barking Nunnery, near London, were “green peas for Lent.” Pease porridge (a gruel made with split yellow peas, a variant of the green pea) and pea soup were staples in the Medieval European diet. Immature fresh green peas eaten raw were considered a luxury item at that time.
In the mid-1800s, peas in a monastery garden in Austria were famously used by the monk Gregor Mendel in his pioneering studies of heredity.
Preparing Green Peas
Fresh green peas are most often prepared as a side dish. But pea soup is also a staple in many kitchens around the world. This recipe, adapted from American chef Ina Garten, uses fresh or frozen green peas to create a taste of spring or summer any time of the year.
2 tbsp unsalted butter
2 cups chopped leeks, white and light green parts
1 cup chopped yellow onion
4 cups chicken stock, preferably homemade
5 cups freshly shelled peas or 2 (10-ounce) packages frozen peas
2/3 cup chopped fresh mint leaves, loosely packed
2 tsp kosher salt
1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup freshly chopped chives
- Heat butter in a large saucepan, add leeks and onion, and cook over medium-low heat for 5 to 10 minutes, until the onion is tender. Add chicken stock, and bring to a boil. Add peas and cook for 3 to 5 minutes, until tender. (Frozen peas will take only 3 minutes.) Off the heat, add the mint, salt, and pepper.
- Puree the soup in batches, 1 cup at a time. Pour the finished soup into a large bowl and repeat until all is pureed. Drizzle with creme fraiche, add chives and seasoning to taste. Serve hot with croutons.
There are million green pea dishes out there; every world culture seems to have at least a few — Indian cooks add them to lamb dishes or samosas; Chinese cooks add them to sauted beef (although snowpeas, a close cousin, are more generally preferred). From this highbrow Italian treatment of green peas as a side dish to the classic British mushy marrowfat peas (typically served with fish and chips), green peas are everywhere.
It’s easy to overlook peas – they are not a very glamorous ingredient. But this hard-working legume is versatile and nutritious and can be used in a wide variety of dishes if you’ll just give peas a chance.