Food buyer’s guide: peas

British peas are at their sweetest now – so long as they are freshly picked. By Joanna Blythman

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Fresh peas make a glorious midsummer treat. It’s hard to beat that pleasing popping sound as you open each plump, green pod to reveal the shiny, tightly packed, emerald peas within. Eaten raw, there is something positively addictive about how their crunch gives way to green sweetness. And should you be lucky enough to grow them in a garden, then their pretty white, lilac and purple flowers add a visual bonus too.
It’s easy to overlook these seasonal peas because we know them so well frozen. In Britain, an area equivalent to 70,000 football pitches is sown each year with peas, most of which end up in bags in our freezers. This isn’t such a bad thing, but if you want to get the maximum nutrition from them fresh, you need to eat them as soon as possible after harvest. Peas are loaded with vitamins A, B, C and folate, but they deteriorate rapidly after picking. However, since commercial peas are usually frozen around two and a half hours after harvesting, they will almost certainly be more nutritious than some ‘fresh’ peas that may have been hanging around in the shops for a few days.
When buying frozen peas, choose the small sort (petits pois) for preference, as they are generally sweeter and less starchy than the larger sort. As another alternative to fresh peas, you could try dried peas, which contain protein and fibre and store well.
Seek out freshness
However much we value stalwart frozen peas, if you can find the new season’s crop in mint condition, then these are simply too good to miss. Look out for pods that are smooth, vibrantly green and firm – these will be truly fresh. Don’t throw away the empty pods; they can be used to make a tasty soup (or wine, see p14), especially with a handful of summery green herbs. Just remember to sieve the soup after liquidising it to remove any fibrous bits.
If you shop in farm shops and farmers’ markets, you may be lucky enough to find silky sweet sugarsnap peas, which you eat pods and all. These are not to be confused with mangetout peas, the flat, pea-free pods that are usually imported from Asia or Africa. For years, chefs could not see beyond them, but they have become something of a cliché and can taste slightly bitter, perhaps as a result of their long-haul journey.
Rescue older peas
When buying peas, avoid those with pods that are fading towards khaki, or that look matt or webbed. These will almost certainly be elderly specimens, which means that the peas within will be hard and floury. But if you do end up with older peas like this, all is not lost. Think of them as halfway to becoming a pulse, and use them in soups, or braise them gently with a little butter, chopped spring onion, carrot and lettuce heart.
Tender young pea shoots and tendrils are all the rage and sell for a premium price. Rather than shelling out for them – excuse the pun – if you don’t have a garden, then you can grow your own either indoors, or on a patio or balcony. All you have to do is fill a container with compost in spring or summer, plant some shop-bought dried peas, put them in a light place and then water them regularly.
The shoots and tendrils will pop up in around two weeks and you can harvest them for weeks, just like cut-and-come-again lettuce. Nibble away to your heart’s content and make the most of that distinctive, delightful, summertime pea flavour.
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