How to Know Which Peas Are Which and Better Yet, the Easiest Ways to Cook Them
When peas hit the markets, it is a time for serious celebration. Because hot, cold, or room temp, cooked or raw, these sweet crunchy legumes are just the wake-up call your cooking needs. The freshest spring peas call for super simple preparations to let their deep green flavor shine, and I have four things I love to do with them: steam/sauté, stir-fry, salad, and soup. But first: let's review the main types of peas, so you can breathe easier about which is which.
Know your different types of peas
For starters, get to know these peas independently, so let's review:
Snap peas are sometimes called sugar snaps and are meant to be eaten pod and pea whole. They are fat and rounded with a super sweet flavor and great crunch.
Snow peas are also an all-in-one for eating, but the pods are flat and the star of the show and the peas within are very small.
English peas or shelling peas look like snap peas, but the walls of the pods are not as thick, and they are meant to be removed from the pods for eating. They can be the hardest to source fresh if you don't grow them yourself, but never fear, a bag of frozen peas subs in perfectly (I often prefer frozen to fresh, since they are frozen at peak sweetness, and once off the vine they start to go starchy within a day.)
Pea shoots are the tender ends of the pea vine with their leaves. You can sometimes find the super small ones in the stores, which are mild and crunchy and like bean sprouts. You may also find bundles that look more like spinach leaves, which will have deeper flavor.
Best way to steam or sauté peas
For a quick and easy side dish, steam or sauté any of these varieties, toss in butter or olive oil, season well with salt and pepper, and add some fresh herbs if you have them. If you especially want to fancy them up, toss them in butter while hot, then garnish with a dollop of sour cream or crème fraiche mixed with coarse whole-grain Dijon mustard, chives, and lemon zest. The topping melts into the hot buttered peas and makes them creamy and decadent without getting overly rich.
Best way to use peas in a salad
My go-to salad all spring is a four-pea salad. It has great impact and flavor for almost no effort. Either cook your fresh shelling peas or thaw a bag of frozen. Top and tail a pint each of snap peas and snow peas and cut on the bias into thirds. Chop a bunch of large pea shoots coarsely into one-inch pieces. Mix all four in a large bowl. Stir in your favorite vinaigrette, either bottled or homemade. I love a punchy lemon Dijon with this, or a simple toss with white balsamic and olive oil. Top with minced fresh chives and grated lemon zest and serve chilled or at room temp.
Best way to use peas in a stir-fry
My second favorite four-pea dish is an easy stir fry using the same set of four ingredients, prepped in exactly the same way. Stir-fry over high heat with a neutral oil, enhanced with a combination of a minced garlic clove, an inch of grated or finely julienned ginger, and a bunch of scallions, whites and greens, thinly sliced. Season when cooked with salt and pepper to taste or add a splash of a 1:1 ratio of rice wine vinegar and soy sauce. This makes for a side dish that can be eaten hot, room temp, or even chilled. Top with a poached egg for brunch or lunch or serve with steamed fish or grilled protein for a light supper.
Best way to use peas in a soup
Finally, for a bright spring soup that is the cure for whatever ails you, prep the same four ingredients the same way again. Heat two quarts of either homemade or a low-sodium store-bought chicken stock to a simmer and add all the peas and cook until they are al dente. Season to taste with salt and pepper; add some red pepper flakes or chopped fresh chili if you want a little heat. Add some cooked rice noodles or orzo pasta. If you want to amp up the protein, add in some cooked shredded chicken. Top your bowl with chopped fresh herbs before serving to add extra bright flavor. Want more variations? Add lemongrass and ginger, or cilantro and lime juice.