Snow peas and sugar snaps – is there a better snack to (healthily) satisfy what seems like a basic human need for crunchy foods? Eaten raw or just quickly blanched, both snow peas and sugar snaps (my personal favorite) need minimal embellishment: their sweet, green pea-taste and super crisp texture are mighty fine on their own. Of course, they also taste great when tossed into a stir-fry, added to a salad or pickled in brine!
A Brief History
Peas have a long and important history, which we discussed in our Real Food Right Now article on garden peas. The long-and-short of it is that peas have been a staple food since at least 3,000 BCE; according to the Oxford Companion to Food, evidence of the plant was found in Bronze Age settlements in Switzerland. Information about the history of edible-podded peas (called “snow peas,” “sugar peas” and later “sugar snap peas”) is a bit scarcer. The Oxford Companion notes that a variety of edible-podded pea (probably closer to today’s snow pea) was popular in 17th Century England. The Chinese are said to have adopted these “snow peas” sometime in the 19th Century. US plant breeder Calvin Lamborn developed the “sugar snap” pea variety in 1979 by crossing garden peas (with especially thick walls) with snow peas. Sugar snaps became a sensation at the time, with even New York Times food writer Craig Claiborne excited about the new pea variety.
- The French term for sugar snaps and snap peas is mangetout, which basically means “eat it all” (as in, the entire pod can be eaten).
- Here is a cute article, written in 1979, from People Magazine, about Calvin Lamborn creating the sugar snap pea. Lamborn is hugely popular in the botanical world; there is even a Facebook page called “An Ode to Calvin Lamborn.”
- Fun with heirloom veggie names! Some varieties of heirloom snow and sugar snaps include: Carouby De Maussane, Golden Sweet, Mammoth Melting, Sugar Anne, Dwarf Gray and Cascadia.
Both snow peas and sugar snaps are, of course, related to garden (aka “English”) peas. But while the garden pea requires shelling, because its tougher pod has a papery, inedible interior, snow peas and sugar snaps have been bred for their edible pods that can be eaten whole: pods, seeds and all. Snow peas (Pisum sativum var. saccharatum) have flat pods with thin walls, while sugar snap peas (Pisum sativum var. macrocarpon ser. cv) have more rounded, thick walled pods that are a bit juicier. Snow peas and sugar snaps grow much like garden peas – on lovely vines with delicate tendrils that bear beautiful flowers, ranging from white to purple. Both are members of the Leguminosae (or Fabaceae) family – aka, the bean or legume family.
Snow peas and sugar snaps are cool-loving veggies – they’re in season from the end of spring through mid-summer, tops, though some ambitious gardeners grow them again as the weather cools moving into fall.
The bad news is that snap peas show up not once, but twice on the Environmental Working Group’s Guide to Pesticides on Produce. Imported snap peas make their appearance in the “Dirty Dozen,” coming in at number 11, while domestic snap peas show up at number 29 on the list. This basically means that any non-organic snap peas you buy probably have some serious pesticide residue on them. The good news is that you can find sustainably grown sugar snaps and snow peas at your farmers’ markets right now! Ask your local pea farmer about his/her growing practices. (*And check out our Real Food Rule of Thumb, below, for more information.)
Characteristics and What to Look For
Both sugar snaps and snow peas should be bright green, with no yellow, black, mushy or brown spots anywhere on the pod. Snow peas will be flexible and bend-y, while sugar snap peas are crisp (and indeed, “snap” when you break them in two). Sugar snaps are juicier with thicker walls. Both will have teeny tiny peas inside (sugar snap peas tend to have larger seeds), and, of course, both should be eaten whole. They both have a sweet, pea-like taste (for obvious reasons). Snow pea shoots are also a delicacy – look for perky green leaves and tendrils, and the smaller the leaves and stems the more tender the greens will be.
Snow peas and sugar snaps are rich in fiber and contain a boatload of nutrients, most notably Vitamin C, Vitamin A, folate, Vitamin K, iron and manganese. They contain a bit of protein (much less than their garden pea cousins, however), and even some calcium.
What to Do with It and Cooking
Snow peas and sugar snaps are delicious both raw and cooked. Snow peas are common in Chinese and Chinese-American cuisine, and show up in all manner of stir fries and sides, but they are also delicious eaten on their own or blanched briefly and tossed into a salad. Sugar snaps are perfect vehicles for dips (blanch them briefly first or eat raw), chopped and tossed into salads or mixed in with grains like farro and quinoa. Both also pair well with nuts, citrus, herbs and other spring and early summer veggies (think asparagus, mushrooms, scallions and radishes). Although stringless varieties are starting to hit the market, you will probably need to “de-string” your sugar snaps (less so snow peas) by pulling on the ends of both sides of the pod to remove the tough “string.” (Here’s a quick video that shows you how.)
If you’re going to go the cooking route for sugar snaps or snow peas, quick cooking methods like stir-frying or a fast blanching tends to be best in order to preserve the crunchy, green quality of both veggies. Here’s a perfectly simple and delicious stir-fry recipe for either snow or sugar snap peas from Mark Bittman. And here’s a great recipe roundup from the Kitchn on several ways to eat sugar snaps this spring and summer. And don’t forget about pea shoots! Eaten like a green, they can be sautéed, stir-fried, blanched or eaten raw. Here is a recipe for stir-fried dau miu (snow pea shoots).
Store your sugar snaps and snow peas in a paper bag in the crisper of your refrigerator. They’ll only keep for a few days.
Stretching your fresh food dollar though preservation
Here is a yummy-looking recipe for dill-y lacto-fermented sugar snap peas and a recipe for pickled sugar snaps using vinegar. Both snow peas and sugar snaps freeze beautifully – here are some tips. And here is a recipe for homemade snap pea crisps, which look amazing.
Sugar Snap Salad with Radishes, Orange, Almonds and Mint
You can riff off of this salad in a million different ways – use snow peas in place of the sugar snaps, sub hazelnuts for almonds, toss in chopped spears of blanched asparagus, use Meyer lemons in place of the orange. Crumble in some feta. Use tarragon in place of the mint. Whatever you do, don’t overcook the sugar snaps – you want them to just barely cook so that their crunchy quality is well preserved.
3 cups sugar snap peas, de-stringed (see What to Do with It, above)
1 bunch radishes (any color)
1 small orange
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1⁄3 cup almonds, toasted and roughly chopped
1⁄4 cup mint leaves, washed, dried and roughly torn
- Blanch the sugar snaps: Have a bowl of ice water ready. Bring a large pot of salted water to the boil. Add the sugar snaps and cook for 1 minute. Immediately remove and plunge into the ice water. When cool, drain and pat dry.
- Trim and quarter the radish roots (halve if roots are very small). (Reserve tops for another use.) Set aside.
- Using a microplane grater or other fine-toothed grater, grate the peel from 1⁄2 of the orange. Set aside. Segment (“supreme”) the orange (here’s a quick how-to). Do this over a bowl to catch the juices. Halve the orange segments (or cut into three pieces if very large). Set the orange segments aside.
- In a small bowl, whisk together the reserved orange juice, the extra virgin olive oil, a generous pinch of salt and a grinding of fresh black pepper. Set aside.
- Assemble the salad: in a medium bowl, toss the cooled sugar snaps, radishes, reserved orange zest, orange segments and vinaigrette together, coating well (I just use my hands to do this). Add the chopped almonds and the mint leaves, and gently toss again to combine. Taste and add more salt, if necessary. Serve immediately.
(*Real Food rule of thumb : We think that first and foremost, in terms of nutrition, people should eat lots of fruits and vegetables whether they are organic or not. The EWG’s guide is a handy list, but we will point out here that the impacts of pesticides are not limited to your ingestion of them – agricultural chemicals also affect farmworkers and local waterways, both good reasons to buy organic, even those vegetables that carry a light pesticide load. Also, it has been demonstrated that produce grown by small-scale farmers, even those who are not certified organic, tends to have a lighter pesticide load than its industrially-produced counterpart, owing to industry’s tendency toward large monocrops.)