Pretty Peas [Bethany Gibbons]

Peas are always one of the first crops we harvest during the gardening season - right up there with spinach and mustard greens and arugula. This year offered a particularly early harvest, and we began picking snap and snow peas in the second week of June, after planting on St. Patty's Day. Now that we are bringing in some two-pounds of edible-pod peas every couple of days, I think I might begin dreaming about curling tendrils and soft white blossoms, slender snows and rotund snaps, and pulling peas from outside the row then peering into the shadowy regions beneath the leaves, always hunting for hidden fruits. We inevitably miss one or two and find them a few days later hard, bulbous and practically splitting their seams.

It is oft repeated online that snow peas are among the earliest-known plants to be cultivated, 12,000 years ago, to be exact, and somewhere around the border of what is now Thailand and Burma. Without any references cited to back-up that fact, I searched botanical books in my library and found a bit of a different story. According to Botanica's Organic Gardening, snow peas arrived in China from India during the Tang dynasty (618-907.) This reference goes on to report snow peas and pea shoots were favored by the Chinese and further refined. Hmm, is it possible that it was actually regular peas being cultivated 12,000 years ago?

D.J. Mabberley writes in The Plant Book that garden peas have been, "cultivated since 7000 B.C. (as long as wheat and barley)" in the Near East. Those are the peas you have to shuck. The most logical explanation of the origin of the snow pea can be found in Elizabeth Schneider's Vegetables from Amaranth to Zucchini, as well as in a few other places. Schneider writes, "Grown as early as 1536 by the horticulturally hyperactive Dutch... the "Holland pea" has a name that indicates its primary center of cultivation and refinement, as does its introduction into France by its ambassador to Holland around 1600." She goes further and explains that the common name for the snow pea in China is hoh laan dau or he lan do, which means Holland pea. Londoner John Gerard wrote about snow peas in his 1597 Herball. Years later, Fearing Burr described nine cultivars of snow pea, as well as an impressive 65 additional pea cultivars, in Field and Garden Vegetables of America in 1863.

Snap peas are another matter altogether. There's little mystery there. They were developed in the 1960s by Dr. Calvin Lamborn, who grew up one of seven children on a sheep ranch in Utah. The story goes he loved to sneak a snack in the family garden, as most children growing up in gardens do, but, as he explained to People magazine in 1979, "I remember chewing up the pods and having to spit out the parchment." Years later, working as a botanist for Gallatin Valley Seed Co. in Idaho on the problem of twisting and buckling of pea shells, he came across a rare mutation (thicker shell walls) in a common pea plant, described as a one in a million mutation, that would become the basis for our beloved sugar snap peas. It took ten years to stabilize the cross between that odd plant and the common pea. Hoorah for the weird aberration. The '79 People story warmly reported the inventor "still drives a 1959 panel truck between work and his Twin Falls home, where he and wife Bonnie tend a large garden."

Whether you grow them, buy them or accept them from generous friends, this is a great time of year for snow and snap peas. Here are a couple of recipes we've been enjoying.

Chicken with Peas and Basil

(adapted from Martin Yan's Asian Favorites)

3/4 lb boneless skinless chicken breast

1/8 tsp salt

1/8 tsp pepper

2 Tbs veg oil

3 cloves garlic, thinly sliced

1/4 cup finely chopped Chinese chives (garlic chives) or the same amount of minced onion

8 oz snap peas, halved

1/4 cup chicken stock

1 cup Italian or Thai basil leaves

1 Tbs fish sauce

1 Tbs soy sauce

2 tsp brown sugar

Thinly slice chicken across the grain and season with salt and pepper. Place wok (or large frying pan) over high heat until hot and add oil. Stir-fry garlic and chives or onions until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add chicken and fry until no longer pink, about 3 minutes. Add peas and stock and cook for 2 mins. Add basil, fish sauce, soy sauce, and sugar. Cook for 1 minute and serve.

Brown Rice Salad with Radishes and Snow Peas

(adapted from The Rodale Whole Foods Cookbook)

To blanch peas, immerse them in boiling water for 25 seconds, then pour off hot water and rinse with cold water until they are completely cold.

2 cups cooked short-grain brown rice

1/2 cup celery, finely chopped

1/4 snow and/or snap peas blanched then halved

1 cucumber, seeded and diced

8 big radishes, halved and thinly sliced

1/4 cup finely chopped chives

1/3 cup minced parsley

2 Tbs rice vinegar

2 Tbs lemon juice

1 Tbs soy sauce

1/2 tsp paprika

1/4 tsp pepper

1/3 cup canola oil

In a large bowl, combine the rice, celery, peas, cucumber, radishes, chives and parsley. In a small bowl combine vinegar, lemon juice, soy sauce, paprika, and pepper. Slowly whisk in the oil until well blended. Pour the dressing over the vegetables and stir.

This salad is light and fresh tasting - flavorful enough to pair with blackened tuna while simple enough to compliment the delicate flavor of ginger-poached striper.

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