Peas are one of the first plants to raise their faces to the sun in seasonal growing areas and are a sign of longer spring days everywhere they are grown. They are fast to flourish and a delight to have in the garden. Their cute, curly tendrils grasping for purchase on any pole, post or neighboring plant they can reach, imbue the plant with personality - little strivers making their way. Not only are peas sweet and spunky, they are prolific sources for great tasting meals. You can eat every part of the pea plant. This is great for the eager eaters among us who can't wait to enjoy the first flavors of spring - you you can nip off the plant's tasty sprouts nearly as soon as they pop out of the ground. Whole plant harvesting is also good news for farmers who can bring the tendrils and shoots of the peas to market for another layer of profit from the crop. Here's how to dig in.
You can eat the shoots and tendrils of every variety of pea. Snow peas, sugar snaps, English (aka garden peas) all send up climbing vines that are as tasty as the peas themselves. They're hugely popular in Asian cuisine and also in the UK, where the temperate climate lends itself to copious pea production. They are so good that home gardeners often plant a separate crop just for their shoots alone. Apartment dwellers take heart; peas make easy container crops and can even be grown indoors for a near constant supply of greens.
The trick to enjoying pea shoots and tendrils is to harvest them when they are very young so that they are still tender. You can start taking shoots as soon as the plant is about six inches. Simply snip off the top growth just below the first set of leaves. You can continue to harvest the top two to six inches every three to four weeks until you notice the flavor of the plant turning bitter which is a sign of age. Older shoots and tendrils will be tough and chokingly fibrous so best to pass those by. Try pea shoots in stir fries, salads, pesto and pasta.
You can eat the flowers, called pea blossoms, as well. They look so pretty in salads and add a lovely little touch to baked goods - though they do taste like peas, so use them sparingly in sweet preparations. One downside? Snipping the flowers will reduce your pod harvest, so keep that in mind or plant extra to accommodate for your blossom pinching ways. Enjoy the flowers candied as a garnish for baked goods, frozen in ice cubes and added to cold drinks or sprinkled on top of spring salads.
PSA: NEVER eat the flowers of ornamental sweet peas! They are poisonous.
Pea pods are also edible. Many of us are used to snacking on whole snow peas and snap peas - my supply rarely makes it out of the market unmolested. But all pods are edible, even garden peas, particularly the young, tender pods. They just take a little extra prep.
There are a few ways to make the pods dinner ready. How you prep them will determine how you use them in your recipe. Whole pods need to have their inner skins removed. This lining of cellulose makes a super bed for the seeds to grow in, but it's tough to chew. To get rid of it, remove the string along the seam of the pod first. You can do this as you are shelling your peas. Think of it as a built in zipper that needs to be undone. Bend the top of the pod until it cracks and then pull it and the string down the length of the pod. Out pop the peas and you're one step closer to completing your pod prep. Now use a paring knife to strip out the white fibrous pod lining and you are ready to go. Enjoy them raw in salads, stuffed perhaps with a thin bead of flavored cream cheese for a cocktail nibble, or sauteed with garlic and olive oil.
Too much trouble? You still don't have to pitch your garden pea pods. Puree them and you can get some more mileage out of the pods. Simply blanch the pods by dunking them into a pot of boiling water for thirty seconds, shock them in a bowl of ice water to stop them from cooking and set their color, then you can puree and strain them to remove the strings and pithy lining. You can use the resulting liquid to make soup or even a nifty spring cocktail.
Recipe: Pea Bits with Lemon
You can use this recipe whether you are cooking up the tendrils and shoots, pea-filled pods of sugar snaps or snow peas or prepped pods of English peas. It has a balance of rich and bright flavors that I think works perfectly with the sunnier but often chilly days of the season. The bacon brings the bass note but if you don't dig the pig, you can leave it out and just add a little butter or neutral oil to the pan to get yourself going. Lemon keeps it zippy and the cream ties the two together. It's pea-rfect (sorry, couldn't resist)!
4 strips of bacon, around 1/4 pound
1 small onion, diced
Salt and pepper
Pea parts of your choosing:
1 pound of sugar snap or snow peas, trimmed, strings removed and halved crosswise, about 3 cups, or;
pods from 1 pound young garden peas, prepped as above, blanched and diced, about 3 cups, or;
2 cups of shelled garden peas, or;
4 cups of pea shoots and tendrils, chopped
1/2 cup white wine
1/2 cup heavy cream
Zest and juice from 1 lemon, about 1/4 cup
In a medium saute pan over medium heat, render bacon until crisp. Remove from pan and reserve. Add onion, season with salt and pepper and saute until translucent, about 3-5 minutes. Add pea parts to the pan and saute until bright green and crisp-tender, about 5 minutes for sugar snap or snow peas or garden pea pods, about 3 minutes for shelled peas and 1-2 minutes for shoots and tendrils. Remove from the pan and set aside. Add the wine to the pan and simmer until reduced to a syrup, about 3 minutes. Whisk in cream, lemon zest and juice and simmer until thickened, about 2-3 minutes. Meanwhile, crumble the bacon. Return it and the sauteed pea parts to the pan and toss to combine and warm through. Serve immediately.