peas

Hello, I’m Andrea Castillo and this is Seasonal, a newsletter that connects you to the Bay Area food system, one fruit and vegetable at a time. Seasonal comes out twice per month, and each post highlights the most interesting aspects of one seasonal fruit or vegetable grown and harvested around the Bay Area. Find me on Instagram at @seasonalbayarea or e-mail me at seasonal@substack.com to share your feedback and suggestions, I’d love to hear from you. If you’d like to unsubscribe, click the gray unsubscribe link at the bottom of this post.

This week we nerd out on peas (available April-November).

offensive seeds

I have to thank my sister for inspiring this post. A few weeks ago we were in the middle of a family video call with our parents and there was a pause in our conversation. She gave us a bit of a devilish smile and asked “hey, you guys want to see something funny?” Well, laughter is the best medicine so I responded with an enthusiastic, “Always!” She then looked down and was trying to find whatever it was she was going to show us. She promised us we were going to lose it. 

Seconds later she told us a story about how a few days ago she had been craving comfort food and wanted to make our mom’s arroz con pollo. She had found frozen vegetables at the store, had chicken and plenty of rice and was excited to make lots of leftovers. It’s a good strategy for a household of one. So she’s prepping everything, grabs the bag of frozen vegetables, opens it, and dumps all its contents into the pot. She panicked for a second because she realized too late that the frozen vegetable medley included peas. And she hates. HATES. peas. I know she wouldn’t touch a pea with a 10ft pole so I asked her if she threw the entire meal away. She didn’t—to my relief—and showed us what she did instead:

Pea punishment. Photo credit: Laura Castillo

She quarantined the offensive green goblins to the farthest edges of her plate because they should’ve never been in her food in the first place. Now that she had ample room, she thoroughly enjoyed the rest of her pea-less arroz. Our parents and I were dying laughing and wished we could’ve been there: obviously because we miss each other and traveling to see family is basically impossible now… and also because we would’ve easily eaten the discarded peas—perhaps even fought over them. 

pea power

Peas have had tremendous power over my family for decades. They’ve split us into the pea lovers and haters. The haters stay put and the lovers have not been able to win them over. My 93 year-old grandfather hates them as much today as he did when he was a kid. One of the youngest cousins in the family can’t stand them (or vegetables in general) and she’ll probably be firmly rooted in the “eew gross” pea camp forever. 

And us lovers? We’re die-hard fans of sweet, nutritious peas! I grew up eating them in my mom’s guiso with minced potatoes and beef on top of rice. For many years, I thought there was just the one kind of pea: the small green sphere shelled from the pod. There are, in fact, several kinds of peas and they belong to a huge and diverse plant family. 

one big happy family

The pea family, also known as the bean, or legume family, is the third largest plant family on earth. The giant legume family includes 20,000 different species of trees and shrubs well as plants with edible pods and seeds. Edible legumes include peas, beans, lentils, and chickpeas. To my surprise, peanuts, alfalfa, and tamarind are all also legumes and cousins of the pea (and now it makes more sense why people with severe peanut allergies have to watch their pea intake: processed concentrated pea protein added to certain foods like sausages or plant-based dairy alternatives could trigger an allergic reaction). The requirement to be in the legume family is straightforward: produce a pod with seeds inside, and you’re in. 

But, over time, we’ve successfully scrambled many of the names and categories for edible legumes. For example, some edible legumes are also called pulses. What the heck is a pulse? Well, it depends who you ask. Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Health explains that pulses are the edible seeds from legumes: a pea pod is a legume but the pea inside the pod is a pulse. Okay. But the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations states that a pulse is a legume specifically harvested for their dry seed: a fresh green pea seed, then, wouldn’t be a pulse. But “pulse” is a term that I’m not using on a daily basis anyway so this is a technical difference I can live with. However, why do we refer to the same legume as a bean and a pea? Let’s take the chickpea and garbanzo bean. They refer to the exact same… bean or pea? And black-eyed peas certainly look more like cute little beans than round peas, so are they beans… or peas? 

a conclusion to the confusion 

There’s actually a simple explanation: peas are beans. I repeat. Peas are beans. As Ken Albala, professor of history at University of the Pacific explains in his fascinating book, Beans: A History , “it is a linguistic accident that we distinguish peas from other beans… [peas] maintain a certain distance from beans, not biologically, but conceptually.” Yeah! That’s what we did! We started to segregate the spherical peas in their own category, and since we can eat them fresh and they are green and sweet, we un-scientifically figured these beans needed their own distinguished category. 

This conceptual evolution is relatively new. When humans figured out how to domesticate plants approximately 11,000 years ago, they started with wheat, barley, and peas. For thousands of years, these cultivated legumes were dried and then cooked or stored. Dried peas were cooked until they disintegrated into pea soup, porridge, or pudding. Not the most exciting way to eat for thousands of years if you ask me, but that’s all there was! We didn’t get to eat fresh peas until the 16th and 17th century, when European gardeners selectively cultivated more tender varieties and created, at last, a sweet, seasonal pea seed. 

sugar, snow, snap, shelling, split 

Now we have a variety of peas we get to enjoy, fresh or dried. Coincidentally most culinary pea names all start with the letter s, adding an extra challenge to keeping them all straight. Let’s start with the new peas. These are the peas we cultivated after the European garden experiments began in the 1600s and I’ve added the species name to keep them somewhat organized. 

sugar and snow (pisum sativum var. macrocarpon)

The sugar pea has flat tender pods and is harvested before any of the seeds can fully grow inside. Technically, sugar peas are unripe. They actually need to be plucked young so the pod remains tender—with time, it will eventually get tough and difficult to eat and the intent with sugar peas is to eat the entire pod. Sugar peas are edible pod peas, or mangetout (French for “eat all”): they are eaten whole and do not need to be shelled. In case you’re looking for recipes, sugar peas are also known as snow peas or Chinese peas and since they’re pretty thin, they don’t need much when cooked

snap (pisum sativum var. macrocarpon ser. cv.)

Snap peas are also part of the edible pod pea crew and are the newest addition to the pea family. As a matter of fact, most grandparents alive today didn’t grow up eating snap peas. In 1969, as the space race peaked and Neil Armstrong was taking his famous first “small step for man,” Dr. Calvin Lamborn, who worked at Gallatin Valley Seed Company in Idaho, crossed a snow pea with a shelling pea (I’ll get to this variety next) and created the snap pea. Not quite a moon landing, but still!

Snap peas are probably the sweetest of all the peas and are best eaten right after they’re picked. Within hours of harvest, snap peas start to lose their sweetness as their sugars transform to starches. Refrigeration slows down this process but a snap pea that’s been in the fridge for a few days will be less sweet than it was at harvest. Snap pea pods have a crunchy texture and are full of large sweet seeds inside—they are plump compared to their thin sugar pea cousins. There may even be a bit of familial jealousy going on too—sugar peas get two aliases (snow and Chinese), so snap peas didn’t want to be left out and secured themselves another rather confusing name: sugar snap peas. Understandably, sugar peas are often confused with sugar snap peas but as we now know, they couldn’t be more different. 

Snap peas, or sugar snap peas, have a fibrous pull tab you can remove before eating them.

If your head is spinning, hang in there. There are two more types of peas to explore, and it’s a two-for-one deal. 

shelling (pisum sativum ssp. sativum)

Shelling peas… are you ready for this? Shelling peas are the same as garden peas, green peas, and English peas. People really went overboard with pea names! (I’m not sure if you have read 100 Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez but, in case you have, keeping track of peas is reminiscent of tracking all of Marquez’ Aurelianos and José Arcadios). The shelling pea is a practical name for this type of pea: it has fibrous pods that are tough to eat. How tough? Curiosity got the best of me and I tried and failed to eat a whole green pea… I spit out a wad of inedible fiber but it tasted good and I’m saving the discarded pods to make soup or stock later. In the 1600s, plant breeders in England were particularly interested in cultivating sweeter and more tender peas and went nuts on developing new varieties so they could finally eat fresh peas that didn’t disintegrate when cooked. The English were hooked on this exciting new way of enjoying peas and succeeded in growing so many varieties that they secured naming rights.

split (pisum sativum ssp. sativum)

Split peas are the old school, dry type of peas. Dried peas store well and are an important source of protein, which helped sustain human lives for thousands of years. As you can guess from this header, split peas are the same as shelling/green/garden/English peas, they’re just fully mature and split down the middle. What’s with the split? After shelling, the seeds are dried and their skin is removed. The pea then splits naturally along the cotyledon—the part of the seed that would eventually grow into leaves. Splitting the pea without its protective hull is a good way to get it to cook much faster, but, when cooked, they easily disintegrate into a mush.

Split peas come in two colors: yellow and green. Green or yellow, both will be starchier than the fresh versions (their sugars have had more time to convert to starches), but the yellow ones will be milder and the green ones will have a more vegetal taste, a flavor that comes from a compound related to the aroma compound in green peppers. With dry peas, skin on or off impacts flavor: dry whole peas with their skin on will be starchier and less sweet than split ones and could take more than an hour to cook.

tl;dr recap

  • sugar peas: flat, practically seedless, and eaten whole

  • snap peas: tender pods with fully grown sweet seeds inside, eaten whole

  • shelling peas: fibrous pods with fully grown seeds inside, only seeds are eaten

  • split peas: dried, skinless seeds from shelling peas

apart but closer than ever

I know it’s strange but peas (the shelling, green, garden, or English variety to get specific here) are at the core of many of my fondest taste memories growing up—as are sliced tomatoes with salt and shredded carrots with sugar or with lime and salt. Peas remind me of family, and specifically of the women in my family. They bring me back to the comforts of home, expressed in a simple homemade guiso de mi mamá (mom’s stew) or in my grandmother’s potato salad with peas. 

And now peas will always make me think of my sister. She may hate peas but we may owe peas a little gratitude. During the family video call I mentioned earlier, peas made us laugh and imprinted an unforgettable quarantine memory in my mind. For a moment, while we all laughed to the point of tears as my sister showed us her version of split peas, it felt like we were all gathered at one table, sharing a humble meal, inches instead of miles apart. I know it wasn’t real but I hang on tight to that short-lived moment of blissful confusion. During our extended isolation, that memory is gold. It is one of the best presents my sister could’ve given me. Thanks, sis.

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Andrea Castillo is a food nerd who always wants to know the what’s, how’s, when’s, and why’s of the food she eats.