I have all sorts of reasons to like green peas. They have a very long history, for one thing. Archaeologists have found evidence that people were eating peas over 8,000 years ago. In ancient Athens, street vendors sold take-out hot pea soup. The appreciative Romans named this legume “pisum” (pronounced pee-sum), from which we get the word “peas.” And peas served as an important source of nourishment for medieval Europeans. Peasants found that peas dried well, providing valuable vitamins and protein over the winter. These traditional field peas were starchy and pale, more like a chickpea, and formed the basis of the “pease porridge hot” mentioned in the nursery rhyme.
The tasty little green peas people enjoy today hit the big time in Renaissance France, where King Henry II’s Italian wife, Catherine de’ Medici, introduced them in the 1500s. There, they became known as “petit pois.” By 1695, a lady friend of Louis XIV, the famed Sun King, described the excitement at court over the first fresh peas harvested that season as “a fashion, a craze.”
It’s hard to imagine that baby peas could inspire such passion. But then I learned that Thomas Jefferson indulged in some healthy competition with his neighbors over who could harvest the first green peas of the season. He was thrilled when his garden at Monticello produced the first crop in the neighborhood. That’s a lot of enthusiasm for one of our most cerebral presidents. Because peas ripen early in the summer, they were among the first bright vegetables on the table each year throughout the millennia before refrigeration.
Another reason to like green peas: They can be planted early—around St. Patrick’s Day where I live in Zone 7. Also, they freeze really well and retain their taste, texture and nutrients when frozen commercially. So unless you are lucky enough to eat peas straight from a vegetable garden, baby peas from your grocer’s freezer are as close to fresh as you’ll get, and they are delicious.
I look for the frozen tiny baby peas, which are just a fraction smaller than the so-called “garden peas.” They are sweeter and less starchy and hardly need to be cooked. I leave the package in the fridge overnight so they defrost slowly, and then I just heat them through for about one minute in boiling water before draining. It’s traditional to add a bit of chopped mint to fresh peas, but a pinch of rosemary is tasty too.
I like to serve baby peas along with roast lamb or broiled lamb chops. I always make extra so that I have leftovers to make a salad. The next day, I top a salad bowl of leafy greens with baby peas, small pieces of pink lamb and a bit of minced mint. If I cooked some new potatoes the night before, I slice one of those in. (Alternatively, I add some cooked rice, white or brown, or quinoa here instead of the potato.) You can sprinkle toasted chopped walnuts or pine nuts on top to add a nice crunch. Then I season with sea salt, a little red pepper and a mild red wine or balsamic vinaigrette. I’ve shared my recipe below. This works with chicken as well as lamb, or even without meat.
SALAD WITH BABY PEAS
3-4 cups mixed greens (I like a mix of romaine, butter lettuce and arugula)
1 cup baby peas, boiled for 1 minute and drained
1 cup cooked lamb or chicken, cut into small pieces (optional)
3/4 cup diced cooked potato, rice or quinoa
1/4 cup chopped walnuts or pine nuts
2 tablespoons fresh mint, minced fine
Salt, pepper and vinaigrette to taste
Take care not to overcook the peas while boiling them. Toss together ingredients and don’t overdress.
Dr. Libby O’Connell is HISTORY’s chief historian.