One of the world’s oldest cultivated crops, the pea is a legume that has fostered the development of agriculture and science throughout history. Along with providing reliable nourishment throughout times of famine, peas were the basis of Mendel’s 1856 experiments in genetics, as well as the birth of frozen food preservation in the 1920s.
Native to the Mediterranean region, there is evidence of pea cultivation dating as far back as the late Neolithic Period. By the Middle Ages, peas were a staple survival crop in Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa. Initially, only the dried seeds were eaten by peasants, but by the early days of modern Europe, fresh green peas were eaten as a delicacy. This led to the development of new cultivars, known as English peas, meant to be eaten fresh. By the 19th century, the modern split pea—green peas with their skins removed to encourage a natural divide in the legume—had become a common kitchen ingredient around the world.
Peas are an excellent source of vitamin A, B1, and C, as well as folate, iron, and phosphorus.
Store unwashed, unshelled peas in a perforated bag or unsealed container in the refrigerator crisper for up to 5 days. Peas can also be blanched in boiling water for 1 to 2 minutes and then frozen for up to 6 months.
Fresh peas add a bright pop of sweet flavor and juicy texture to any dish. Add steamed or roasted peas to soup, stir-fry, curry, rice, or pasta, or use as a bed for seafood, chicken, or meat. Peas pair well with creamy dishes such as polenta, chowder, or thick stews, and offer a sweet, fresh counterpoint to rich and salty flavors such as cured meats or cheese. They can also be puréed with garlic and herbs as a side dish or a dip.
Toss fresh peas with crushed garlic, olive oil, and salt, then add to a hot frying pan and roast over high heat, turning constantly, until peas are lightly blistered all over. Remove from heat and sprinkle with finely chopped herbs, a splash of lemon juice, and crumbled fontina cheese, if desired.
Shelled pea pods can be added to vegetable stock or braising liquid for a boost of flavor and nutrition.