Just Good Food

Kitchen Notebook: Snap Peas


by John Ryan


Even after eight years two things about our wedding remain absolutely clear. First is the ecclesiastical permission to breathe. Right after pronouncing us husband and wife, the priest looked at me and said: "John, you can breathe now."

The other is the snap peas at dinner. They were the first vegetable I honestly thought were sweet. Not some vague opposite of bitter or sour, or sweet because they were gooped up with a fluorescent sauce, but sweet because they were genuinely sweet.

Our wedding was a small affair. The ceremony was followed by a wonderful dinner cooked by Fred Bramhall, a friend and chef.

Fred was the first person I'd met who wanted to be a chef. We were hired on the same day to work in a French restaurant-he as a chef; I as a dishwasher. One day the pantry cook didn't show up and I was shuttled over to make salads. To this day I can't believe it --because somebody didn't show up for work I found myself on a career path.

Anyway, one of the things I still admire about Fred's cooking was that he never felt compelled to take apart and reassemble every ingredient he served. Those peas for instance. He didn't split them open, stuff them with herbed cream cheese and tie them up with tomato peels. He simply blanched them and put them on the plates at just the right moment. And that's all they needed. They arrived brilliantly green and steaming hot. It is still my favorite way of having them.

For years, however, finding sugar snap peas was tough. When they did show up, they were usually treated with suspicion, as if given half a chance, they'd beat up on the mushrooms. That's why grocers lined them up on styrofoam trays and wrapped them in plastic. But times have changed. When snap peas are in season, they are in baskets and you can actually choose the ones you want.

As long as I can pick the ones I want, I go for the plumpest ones because they have stayed on the vine and sweetened up. They are great for eating raw. They go in salads or out with carrot sticks.

Thinner snap peas have generally been picked a little earlier for shipping. They benefit from a little cooking .

I also appreciate their sense of season. Snap peas hate the heat. When summer hits, local snap peas vanish. So I start looking for them right about now because, besides being fresh, they're as cheap as they'll get. (Time and again I find that the best produce is the cheapest. It's ironic that we've fallen into the habit of paying the big bucks for wooden strawberries, tart grapes, and pink tomatoes.)

At a farmer's market last year, a sign maker cut right to the chase. Instead of writing "Snap Peas" or "Sugar Snaps," she had written "Edible pod peas!!!" in magic marker. A charming sign, I thought. One that led me to suspect what she had spent too many afternoons shelling peas and wanted everyone to know that these peas didn't require that kind of work. (You gotta love it, a sign like that. It's the sort of thing that gets suffocated at the supermarket level.)

Snap peas have an interesting history. Some heirloom varieties have been around for centuries, but they never caught on. The snap peas we have today were developed in the late sixties by Calvin Lamborn. His assignment was to get something with the sweetness of fresh peas without having to shell them.

Fresh peas have all but disappeared. Peas are still grown, of course, but nearly all of them are canned or frozen. So nowadays, unless you garden, fresh peas—sometimes called English peas—are rare. And pea words are becoming archaic. One of these days "shelling" will need to be accompanied by an asterisk and footnote.

Anyway, by crossing shelling peas with snow peas (a.k.a. sugar peas, pea pods, or Chinese peas), Dr. Lamborn developed a sweet pea with an edible pod—Sugar Snap Peas.

Now, nearly 30 years later, there are several varieties of snap peas out there. In supermarkets you might find a stringless variety that can truly be tossed into salads or cooked without any fuss. But most of the snap peas I run into still need to be strung—a simple matter of snapping off one end and pulling the string down the seam. with some varieties you need to string both sides.

Snap peas are about the easiest vegetable to buy. Just buy them fresh, keep them cold, and eat them soon. The sugar in snap peas converts to starch the way it does in corn. Keeping them cold slows the conversion down.

And they are about the easiest vegetable to prepare. About the only thing to watch out for is overcooking then. Part of the pleasure is the crunch. Cook them more than two or three minutes, and snap peas get soft and lose flavor.  


Blanched Snap Peas
Sautéed Chicken and Snap Peas

Reprinted by permission from John Ryan's Just Good Food.


This Archived Page created between 1994 and 2001. Modified August 2007