“Garden-fresh peas have become almost a myth (by the time most of us get them, they are too starchy), so for consistency and ease, we prefer the frozen ones.” The Gourmet Cookbook
Archaeologists suggest that peas were one of the earliest food crops. Botanically a fruit, peas are treated as a vegetable in cooking. Immature peas are used as a fresh vegetable, and varieties called field peas are shelled and dried.
When peas reached France around 800, Charlemagne had them planted throughout his realm. They became a staple food for European peasants because, when dried, peas could be stored for use in winter months. Dried peas are recorded being stored for Lent in London by the 12th century, and they accompanied the voyages of discovery to the New World. During the Renaissance (by the end of the 14th century), Italians developed a new strain of tiny peas called piselli novelli, which were eaten fresh. When Catherine de Medici married Henry II of France in 1533, she brought these new peas, along with other favorite foods, with her to Paris. Renamed petits pois, they became the rage among the French elite.
Towards the end of the 17th century, fresh garden peas were still a rare delicacy that commanded exorbitant prices in France. Fresh garden peas did not become common until the 18th century. In the 1860s, Gregor Mendel, an Austrian monk, conducted experiments on how pea plants reproduced that revealed the existence of dominant and recessive genes and created the science of genetics.
Thomas Jefferson, long a Francophile, grew more than 30 cultivars of peas at Monticello, and he competed with his neighbors to see who could produce the first crop of peas each spring. When canning became vogue in the late 1800s, peas were among the first vegetables to be subjected to a heat process that destroyed their chlorophyll, leaving them with a dull green color, a mushy consistency and an unmistakable canned taste. This did not deter consumers, however, at least until frozen vegetables came onto the market in the 1920s and 30s. Freezing was a wonderful improvement for peas, which could now be frozen immediately after harvest, preventing their sugars from turning to starch and offering the public easy access to a closer simulation of freshly picked peas. Peas took so well to freezing that today only about 5 percent of the nation’s pea crop reaches the market fresh.
There are more than a thousand varieties of peas in existence today. Because peas can be challenging to keep on a fork, upscale restaurants rarely serve them to avoid embarrassing diners who chase them around their plates, onto the table cloth, and even down to the floor.
To cook frozen peas for four, bring ¼ cup unsalted water to a boil in a large saucepan, add one 10-ounce packages frozen petits pois (tiny, sometimes called baby, peas) and return the water to a boil, separating peas with a fork. Reduce the heat and simmer the peas, covered, for 2 to 3 minutes, or until they are heated through, and drain them well. Toss the peas with 1 tablespoon unsalted butter, softened, and salt and pepper to taste. Transfer them to a heated serving dish, and sprinkle them with the zest of ½ lemon, removed with a vegetable peeler and cut into fine julienne strips.