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Fresh Peas Please

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By Noelle Munaretto

"How luscious lies the pea within the pod"- Emily Dickinson

Inside the delicate flaps of a pea pod you can find some of summer's brilliant little jewels. When eaten fresh, these green pebbles are not only bursting with sweetness, but they also boast a laundry list of good-for-you nutrients. Ontario green peas are finally making an appearance at the city's farmers' markets where they're getting snapped up by those looking for a truly fresh crop of this vegetable.

But, when it comes face to face with other types of seasonal produce, the green pea is definitely an underdog. It's not as popular as other green vegetables like asparagus or broccoli, and has been maligned by picky children for ages. This likely has to do with what I like to call ‘frozen-pea syndrome'. Few things looks less appetizing than tiny, shrivelled up green peas, plucked straight from the supermarket freezer and thrown into the microwave. Mask them with spices, toss them in butter, mash them into oblivion and there's still something missing. Only five percent of America's pea crops are sold in a fresh state, sadly leaving most to grow up eating the frozen or canned kinds. As a child I would play with my frozen peas until they were no-longer consumable, popping them one by one so I wouldn't have to eat them. The strategy worked, and even into my adolescence I still couldn't touch peas without thinking of that acrid, freezer taste.

Since then, my relationship with this food has taken a turn for the better. Thanks to local and organic green peas, grown by Ontario farmers who take pride in how our food tastes, I have fully conquered my pea phobia. That's a good thing too, because the different varieties of green peas, whether used raw or cooked, lend themselves well to a myriad of dishes.

Take sugar snap peas, for example. This breed of pisum satvium was invented in the 1970s and is a cross between the snow pea and garden pea. Pods of the sugar snap peas are plump and round, so this type of pea is best enjoyed whole. When they're either raw or cooked, sugar snap peas deliver exactly what their name promises; a sweet, earthy taste that no commercial bag of frozen peas can mimic. Aside from eating the whole pods raw - which is my favourite way to enjoy them - another alternative is to quickly sauté the pods with a bit of olive oil and garlic. Don't overcook them though, or you'll be left with limp sugar snaps instead of crisp ones. A minute just to warm them through will suffice.

Another type of pea that will soon be harvested from Ontario vines is the English or ‘garden' pea. Earlier varieties of the garden pea had been available in Europe thousands of years ago, however poor growing techniques resulted in people eating these ‘field peas' dried. When pea cultivation improved in the sixteenth century it lead to the development of the garden pea - a vegetable that was finally fit to be consumed both raw and whole. Then, in the seventeenth century, King Louis the XIV featured recipes with garden peas on menus of the royal court. His popularization of this vegetable made the garden pea one of the most sought-after foods of the period and prompted the colonialists to bring similar plants over with them to the United States. Today, these peas are great to use in soups, salads, or as a side dish. A classic way to prepare garden peas is to line a steamer basket with delicate Boston or Bibb lettuce leaves, and add a few handfuls of freshly shelled green peas. If you want, throw in fresh herbs of your choice, then cover with a few more lettuce leaves, add a little bit of water, and steam for 10 to 15 minutes until the peas are tender. Garnish with a dollop of organic butter and some salt and pepper and you'll be in pea heaven.

The snow pea is also a great green pea variety that makes an appearance in the summertime. These flat pods are popular in Asian-style dishes such as stir-frys, and are also tasty when traditionally steamed with other vegetables inside a bamboo basket. Whatever type of green pea you decide to buy, it's important to know that peas are at their peak the moment they're picked. In fact, the longer you let fresh peas sit inside the refrigerator, the more likely they will start converting their natural sugars into unappetizing starch. So, the moral of the pea story is to eat your peas less than 24 hours after you buy them.

If you forget about the peas in that back of your fridge, or don't have time to cook them, your best last resort is to freeze them. I know, I know, you're probably asking me why I'm telling you to freeze peas when only a few paragraphs ago I declared the practice a veggie travesty. Let it be known that plump Ontario peas, whether eaten fresh or properly frozen, will always taste better than their imported counterparts. Wash your shelled green peas then briefly blanch them in boiling water. When the peas turn bright green, drain them and tightly pack into plastic freezer bags. Vacuum packing them works even better because less air hitting your peas means a reduced chance of freezer burn. Peas will keep in the freezer for up to six months and are great to have handy for sprinkling into soups and stews.

The last thing to know about peas is how healthy they are for you. A 100 gram serving of fresh garden peas will set you up with at least 20 percent of your recommended daily intake of vitamin C, vitamin K, fiber, manganese and vitamin B1.

This summer, support your Ontario farmers by purchasing local green peas from the market. Your taste buds will definitely thank you.


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