Sweet peas are the one green vegetable (technically a nitrogen-fixing legume) for which my 3-year-old Theo has unwavering affection. When he started on solid foods, I made all kinds of homemade baby food purees, but I don’t remember ever mashing up (or even cooking) peas for him. Since before age 1, Theo has preferred nature’s candy raw, snacking on frozen peas and picking and eating fresh ones whole (even fibrous shelling varieties), pod and all.
We relished summer’s first English shelling peas (late, like everything else this season) from Waldoboro’s Spear Farm at the Crystal Spring Farmers Market in Brunswick last Saturday. Organic Six River Farm from Bowdoinham was sold out of peas by the time we got there. Theo, too impatient to pick out the ones I’d shelled for him, started munching on the still-young-and-tender pods whole. We tried to string them first so he didn’t choke, but he kept digging straight into the bag. Good fiber, right? And there’s much nutrition packed into the pods, anyway. Theo spit out the roughage he couldn’t swallow.
Last year, he eagerly foraged for forgotten snap peas from my community garden plot in late July. They had an enticing, almost-dehydrated, concentrated flavor. Even during these picky toddler/pre-school ages of 2 to 4 when kids start to assert their budding preferences, they still love peas. They are a healthy, protein-and-fiber-packed comfort food children and their parents can agree upon.
Pea love runs deep in my family. Here in Maine, we’ve embraced the American-as-apple-pie peas – and strawberries – for July 4th tradition. Perhaps we appreciate these early summer treats here even more than usual since ours don’t come on thick until after everyone else in the country, it seems, has had their fill. Then, we’re hounds at market, sniffing out those fleeting green cardboard pints before they sell out. There’s nothing like peas and strawberries to bring farm-stand customers out.
Hopefully, your peas produced plenty in time for your Fourth of July barbecues and parades. My family loves to catch the whole peas thrown to onlookers during the annual Fourth of July parade in Belgrade Lakes. The peas are supplied by farmer Mary Perry of Belgrade’s Winterberry Farm, who started this now-cherished tradition about 10 years ago. Perry’s organic, community supported agriculture (CSA) farm grows at least nine varieties of peas – Sugar Ann earliest snaps from Johnny’s Selected Seeds in Albion are her favorite. She throws the peas from the farm’s 1952 restored Ford farm truck, with a little help from her three children and the farm apprentices.
“It never occurred to me people would throw candy in the parade instead,” says Perry, who as of press time planned to contact the Maine Association of Organic Farmers and Gardeners to source certified organic peas for the parade if her crop – which has always come through in past years – hadn’t produced enough by this July 4th.
“We only eat ours raw,” she added. “I never cook peas ever, ever, ever.”
Perry’s diabetic daughter, who sticks to a raw diet, chops up the farm’s pea vines into breaded kohlrabi patties she eats with cilantro-lime yogurt sauce. Perry says they also blend raw peas and pea greens into hummus.
We eat our fill of raw peas, too. But sometimes, as with strawberries, you long for more creativity in the kitchen. Peas don’t require much of us: a little butter or heavy cream, some fresh mint or tarragon and a pinch of Maine sea salt and grind of pepper to intensify that natural sweetness.
You can quick-blanch (briefly boil then shock in an ice-water bath) the peas with a bit of baking soda, to alkalize the water and thus preserve their vivid color. (But here I must disclose my love of those puke-green but still so appealing, almost smoky LeSeur canned peas – a childhood guilty pleasure.)
When I transformed from small container, fire-escape herb gardener to a haphazard backyard one, peas were among the first things I grew, sown along a falling-down fence. My parents also got their start with peas, and were stunned by their sweetness, dabbling with a community-garden plot when my dad was in law school in the early 1970s. Ever since, peas have been my dad’s favorite vegetable, which he insists on even out of season at Thanksgiving.
In the Northwest, I learned to love Cascadia, a disease-resistant sugar snap pea developed by Oregon State University in Corvallis, where we used to live. Since I always forget to stake peas, I appreciated that trellising was optional, though would, of course, promote ease of harvest, with these short, bush vines. I’ve sown some Cascadia in Maine, albeit with my characteristic carelessness, mixing them in with shelling and snow pea seeds here and there.
If I do plant a shaded fall crop soon, I will trellis with more intention (yeah, right). Fortunately, peas seem to thrive amid neglect.
On her Willamette Valley homestead, my friend, cookbook author and master food preserver Linda Ziedrich always grew snap peas for her children to pick. They’re delicious raw or blanched and chilled for kid-friendly dipping, into hummus, ranch dressing, a garlicky bagna cauda or aioli, or – if all else fails – ketchup.
Snaps also marry well with Asian flavors. Though sugar snaps are best right off the vine, in her definitive “The Joy of Pickling” guide, Ziedrich recommends pickling any sugar snap peas that kids don’t gobble up as her “close second” favorite preparation, a way to “continue to enjoy them for weeks after the pea vines have wilted away.”
So here’s to a July rich in peas. Have your fill raw, and then experiment in the kitchen. Throw them into new potato salads, make chilled pea soup, stud Indian potato samosas and Thai green curries with peas.
And please encourage your children to eat their peas and not just stick them up their noses, an antic Theo thankfully hasn’t yet attempted (but I don’t want to jinx ourselves). If he ever does – and no, Theo, this is not a dare – I’m prepared to try that admittedly awkward “kiss technique”: closing off the unaffected nostril and blowing a puff of air into Theo’s mouth, until the pressure pushes out the offending pea.
Toddlers everywhere, keep those peas you love in your chubby hands and mouths, where they belong.