SUGAR SNAP PEAS
Because they are a cool weather crop, peas are believed to have developed first in middle Asia (northwest India and Afghanistan), in parts of the Near East and in Ethiopia. Archaeologists have found peas in ancient Egyptian tombs, and traces of peas have been found in the remains of Bronze Age villages in Switzerland dating back to 3000 BC. The Greeks and Romans were growing peas by 500 to 400 BC; vendors hawked“hot pea soup” on the streets of Athens and Apicius, born in 25 BC, included nine recipes for peas in his Roman cookbook. Romans named the vegetable pisum which, in English, became pease and, eventually, peas. In the ancient world, peas were valued because they could be shelled and dried, extending their usefulness through cold weather and long voyages.
The Chinese were the first to consume the entire pea pod. The Dutch and the British both had edible pod peas, called mangetouts (“eat all” in French), by the late 17th century, and similar peas were introduced as “butter peas” in the United States in the 19th and 20th centuries, but they gained little popularity with growers.
Then, in the 1960s, Utah native Calvin Lamborn took it upon himself (well, maybe not – he was employed as a breeder by a seed company) to create a pea with the sweetness of fresh garden peas, but without the tedious need to be shelled. He crossed a sport of the English garden pea, which required shelling, with the Chinese snow pea, which was eaten whole. The result, a sweet pea with a plump, edible pod, thick walls and a delicious sweetness at maturity, has been marketed since the 1970s as a sugar snap pea. To James Beard, sugar snap peas were “nothing short of sensational … a breakthrough for all of us who love crispy, crunchy vegetables.”
While I’m not a supporter of a different piece of kitchen equipment for every task, I do think a vegetable steamer is a worthwhile investment. It consists of a medium-sized pot with a tight-fitting lid and a basket insert that is perforated at the bottom. Water is brought to a boil in the bottom of the pot and the insert, containing the vegetables, is suspended two or three inches above it. The pot is covered, the steam rises, passes through the perforations in the basket, and cooks the vegetables inside. If you don’t have a vegetable steamer, sometimes a heat resistant colander can be used in a stock pot with a close fitting lid to the same effect.
To steam sugar snaps:
- Trim the peas, put them in a steamer basket, rinse them under cold tap water and set them aside in the sink to drain.
- Add a couple of inches of cold tap water to the steamer pot (it should come just below, but not touch, the steamer basket – if the basket is submerged, you will be boiling your vegetables, not steaming them). Put the lid on the pot and bring the water to a boil.
- Remove the lid and place the basket insert with the sugar snaps into the pot over the boiling water. Cover again, reduce the temperature to medium, and steam for 3 to 4 minutes, or until the peas are crisp tender. Toss with butter or seasonings and serve.
To steam other vegetables, note that:
- Some vegetables steam more successfully than others. In addition to sugar snaps, those include asparagus, broccoli, carrots, cauliflower, corn on the cob, green beans, potatoes, and spinach.
- Vegetables should be cut to uniform sizes to assure even cooking.
- Check periodically to make sure your water hasn’t boiled away. Add more water to the steamer if necessary.
- Remove vegetables from heat when they are just tender, not mushy. If you aren’t going to use them immediately, run them under cold tap water, while still in the steamer basket, to stop the cooking, then pat them dry with paper towels.
- Reheat them by turning them in a hot skillet with a tablespoon or two of butter and a sprinkling of salt and pepper before serving.