On Fresh Peas, and How to Shell Them

Petits Pois

I did not grow up eating peas. My mother didn’t like them so they never appeared on the family table, and the revolting stuff we were served at school didn’t do much to dispell the notion that peas were, well, beurk (that’s French for yuck).

Fast-forward a decade or two and what do you know, I find out that petits pois, freshly shelled and cooked with grace, are in fact a delicacy, to be savored in proportion to the manual labor they require.

The first time I bought fresh peas at the greenmarket and sat down to shell them, it took me a while to find my groove. You see, I had years of green-bean-trimming experience, but none with these animals.

My initial technique was to pry them open through sheer force, but I was dissatisfied with the results. It was awkward and messy and left green gunk under my thumbnails; it could not have been the Mary Frances way*.

I fiddled with each pod, experimenting with different approaches as if trying to unlock one of those mechanical puzzles my friend Derrick loves so. Eventually I discovered that if I tore the stem end and pulled the string down along the pod, it acted like a pull tab to open envelope. The pod surrendered, and I was able to open it easily and free the peas with a run of the thumb.

Petits Pois

But there is a trick: the trick is to look closely and notice that a pea pod is not as symetric as it seems. The two seams are not alike: one is a slight indentation, the other a slight ridge, and the stem end cranes its neck towards the ridged side.

For optimal results, you should tear the stem backwards and pull it down along the indented side. This will remove the sturdiest bit of string and, most satisfyingly, unzip the pod.

I like my peas steamed until just tender, and this takes 14 minutes. Once they’re cooked, I simply dress them with salt, pepper, and a touch of butter or crème fraîche, or I let them cool slightly and toss them with a diced avocado and roughly chopped cilantro.

This past Sunday, however, I was roasting a duck, so I just combined them with the strips of onion that had caramelized in the baking tray. That was nice.

And with the empty pods, I intend to make soup.

* P is for Peas in MFK Fisher’s An Alphabet for Gourmets, and she recounts the harvest of her first crop of peas in Switzerland, during which her mother “sat shelling peas from the basket on her lap into the pot at her feet, her fingers as intent and nimble as a lacemaker’s.”

~~~

In other news, I’ve just set up a service that allows you to order signed bookplates from me, to personalize your C&Z book(s).

In other news (2), I participated in a fun radio segment that was aired on NPR last Sunday and is now available online.

Tagged:
  • Kathryn

    I only eat peas when they are local & fresh, and I only eat them raw. The first local peas are now appearing in our farmers markets here in central Canada.

    My method of shelling peas is to squeeze the pod on those seams, and the pea pops open. There is still the danger of green gunk when removing the peas. The gunk is worth it to enjoy those fresh beauties.

  • http://queencallipygos.livejournal.com Kim W.

    I ate a lot of peas when I was a child — however, I ate most of them raw. My grandfather had a garden, and my brother and I would often sneak out to pick peas and shell and consume them on the spot — they are never as sweet as they are when just picked.

    We’d get a little too enthusiastic, though, and would sometimes wipe out entire pea crops in one go. My mother would give us a gentle lecture when she found out, chiding us that “the REST of us were hoping to have peas with dinner,” but I don’t ever remember her getting too mad, because I’m sure at the back of her mind she was realizing that, on the bright side, her kids were happily eating vegetables.

    To this day I prefer only the simplest preparations for peas.

  • Harlan

    I heard the NPR story this weekend! Congratulations on the excellent press coverage! (Not to mention your excellent neighborhood…)

  • http://www.msadventuresinitaly.com/blog Sara, Ms. Adventures in Italy

    I find shelling peas pretty therapeutic, though I haven’t noticed if one technique works better than another. I guess I’ll have to pay more attention next time. :)

  • http://www.winosandfoodies.com barbara

    I also learnt to shell peas hiding in my mother’s garden eating them raw straight from the vine.

  • Braden

    Do you know Nigelle? It’s my new favorite spice to combine with fresh peas. Nigelle is from Turkey and looks like black sesame but tastes like onion and carrot, a perfect addition to butter cooked peas. I got mine from Bruno.

  • Griffin

    Like Kathryn, I was taught to gently squeeze the pea pod on the seams. They then pop open and you run your fingernail or thumbnail under the peas into a bowl.

    Hours of mindless fun… until we discovered that they were very sweet when fresh and could be eaten raw – at which point my mum stopped us from doing it!

  • http://www.livingtastefully.weebly.com/-passions-to-pastry.html Eileen

    I see there are several others that share in my memories of eating peas as a child. I would sit in the middle of my aunt’s large vegetable garden and eat them right off the vine. That will probably always be my favorite way to enjoy peas and one of my favorite childhood memories.

  • gbsh

    Any other garden-snackers consume the whole pod? We used to gobble the entire thing… also raspberries straight off the bush, fresh green beans… mom got us to settle down by warning that if we didn’t bring the veggies inside to be washed, they might well have “bird pee” on them! Beurk indeed!

  • Jennifer K

    The vegetable that never appeared on our table was artichokes. My mom had a scholarship to Berkeley, and lived in a co-op to save money, where they ate communally. Somehow they kept getting crates of artichokes for next to nothing. She never wanted to see an artichoke again, and I never tasted one until I went away to college.

  • http://spoiledonlychild.typepad.com spoiledonlychild

    Fresh peas?? I thought they only came frozen. Who knew? Honestly, I am a member of a CSA, and I regularly go to the farmers market and comb the produce aisle of the grocery store, and I’ve never seen a fresh pea. Maybe I just don’t know what they look like.

  • http://www.lizzieeatslondon.blogspot.com/ Lizzie

    I don’t think I’ve ever had fresh peas. Outrageous! I’m going to seek some out.

  • http://www.vegoftheweek.com vegoftheweek

    Peas are wonderful with pearl onions!

  • Natasha

    I also had a horror of cooked peas when I was younger, mainly because of my mother’s tendency to overcook them – though me and my sister always had fun eating fresh peas from the pod. I too tend to squeeze the pods lightly til they pop and then run my nail under them to remove them from the pod.

    By the way, the best way I’ve found to serve peas is with a light gravy seasoned with celery salt…

  • http://www.skiingweaver.blogspot.com Kristin

    I’m another one with fond childhood memories of sitting on the screened porch with my Mum and a big bowl of peas to be shelled. I can’t recall ever eating them raw, though, I wonder why not! Will do so next time I’m shelling peas with my own daughter!

  • Jody

    Just listened to the NPR podcast—congrats on the coverage. It sounded terrific.
    BTW concerning your comments re. French shopkeepers (on the NPR page and in the book), so far during my stay in Paris I have found everyone I have dealt with to be helpful and friendly, maybe even more so than I had expected/hoped for.
    And thanks for the tip re. the reuseable sacks at Monoprix that you alerted me to in a response to an email I had sent you!

  • http://www.spicedish.typepad.com EB

    This is sooo *Americana* it’s kind of sick. My southern grandmother and I used to sit on the porch in rocking chairs and shell homegrown peas by the basketfull. I think I ate as many raw as went into the pot.

  • http://travelingmcmahans.wordpress.com Dana

    Thanks for the new word! Beurk is not on my French word of the day calendar :)

  • bronwyn

    Definitely you pop them then scrape the peas out. One pod-full for the bowl, one for your mouth. The pods are yummy, but have a very fibrous layer on the inside that needs to be removed.

    Shelling the first fresh peas of the year from the garden was a traditional thing to do for Christmas dinner here in New Zealand when I was a child. The dinner would consist of roast lamb with roast veges (potatoes, parsnip, kumera – a purple sweet potato – and pumpkin), peas, gravy, and mint sauce. Mint sauce is particularly nice on lamb and peas; it is basically chopped mint with a little sugar and diluted malt vinegar added and left to infuse for an hour or so.

  • Mireille

    I rather quite like peas, but mushed peas? Beurk! (yuck). I don’t normally find fresh peas, but I do eat frozen ones….

  • http://whereimcookingfrom.wordpress.com/ Moriah

    Those peas look lovely! I can’t wait until they appear in the New York greenmarkets (though I suppose I have to). I usually just have peas with a little butter or mint, but mixing them with cilantro and avocado is a must-try.

  • Sunny

    They look so lovely on the plate, they make me want to plant some.

  • Marcia

    I enjoyed your article in May Bon Appétit as well as the story on NPR this past week-end.

    I thought about getting your book, but paperback is hard to keep open while one cooks. Will it ever be in hardback?

    Come to Atlanta, GA and you will eat some of the best food ever. We have had fresh peas about 5 weeks. Steam them ’till barely done. Add a nice pat of unsalted butter, a grinding of fresh pepper and a spoon– all you need to eat fresh peas. Mmmm

  • Supriya

    Hey – this post reminded me of some of my earliest childhood memories of peeling peas with my grand mom while chucking the sweet ones in my mouth – but increasingly i find in India we seem to be going from natural to processed – and not surprisingly i have come to use the frozen ones lately. but after reading this post, i find myself inspired to go back to the simple pleasures of peeling. nice!

  • Joan

    The shelling of peas! My earliest memories would be early ’50s. That snap of the pod…that oh so sweet sweetness of a raw pea…

    Mushy peas on top of a really truly meat pie…so Wintery

  • Rachel

    Like you, I didn’t have the fresh pea experience until I was in my 20s (and had moved to England). We always had a vegetable garden when I was growing up, but the only peas my mum ever planted were snow peas (so no need to pod them)… and yes, my brother and I did manage to gobble the entire harvest on more than one occasion.

    I like my fresh peas cooked in a very small amount of water and light olive oil with a clove of finely chopped young garlic and a bit of mint. Now I’ll have to try your methods!

  • http://www.cocoandme.com Tamami

    Ditto your comment about the ‘beurk-y’ peas served at school lunches…! They put me off too when i was a kid.

  • dory

    Those of you who think you haven’t seen fresh peas may just be cooking the whole pod and not peeking inside to see what is there. They are commonly available from farmers’ markets and in natural foodstores as well as seasonally in the produce section of most well-stocked grocery stores. THey look like snow peas only fatter. Of course I live in Madison, Wisconsin the home of huge farmers’ markets for decades, so maybe I got used to really varied produce in season. (Of course there is not a lot of local produce in Wisconsin in January!)

    Dory

  • http://www.foodloversbritain.com Sarah

    Mmmm fresh peas are yummy. Plus I have just discovered them Japanese style “edamame” – delicious. I agree though, shelling is really therapeutic.

  • http://cookingciccio.wordpress.com francesco

    COmpliment pour ton blog! On partage beacoup de chose: l’amour pour la cuisine, le fait d’habiter à montmartre, l’amour pour le chocolat! J’espere que tu puisses jeter un coup d’oiel à mon blog de cuisine italienne!
    A bientot

    http://cookingciccio.wordpress.com

    Francesco

  • http://www.realepicurean.com Scott at Real Epicurean

    I’m just in the mood for some fresh, sweet crunchy fresh peas. It’s your fault.

  • http://www.thursdaynightsmackdown.com michelle @ TNS

    i am willing my peas to grow faster after seeing this photo, which, it seems to me, must be a perfect photo of a pea.

  • http://justfoodnow.wordpress.com justfoodnow

    Like so many of your readers, we grew up with and eat raw peas here as well but I have noticed that they are scarcer. Maybe the retailers don’t like them or maybe the huge companies make too much money out of frozen peas.

    It was really great to find your blog – first time I found a writer that loves food as totally as do I.

    We used to keep the raw peas for treats since we were not allowed sweets – something my children were only allowed once a week as well.

    I am 50 now and still get a kick of the raw peas.

  • Deleilan

    I’m off to re-read Philippe Delerm…

  • http://www.atfirstglass.com Nancy

    I understand that fresh peas are delicious and I like the stories of shelling them and/or eating them right in the garden. But good heavens, how did all you lovely people happen to grow up where there are no rabbits? I tried lettuce and strawberries in my garden once but the lettuce was nibbled to nothing overnight and each strawberry vanished the moment it blushed a hint of pink. I would never dream of daring to try the most succulent treat of all, peas. Does one simply plant enough for Benjamin Bunny and oneself, too?

  • Wouter

    Allthough fresh peas are very, very nice the frozen ones are pretty good second, and better than many not-so-fresh-anymore peas you can buy.

    I love a simple salad of twice-shelled fava beans (fèves) and peas, some rock salt, a few basil leaves and good olive oil.

  • http://serveitforth.com Barbra

    Fresh peas are a treat, indeed, but only if they are very, very fresh. All of the sugar that makes them delicious starts turning to starch quickly after picking and even peas at the greenmarket may have been harvested too far in advance, so always ask the vendors. That said, when they are good, they are so very good! Tossed with a little butter, there are few things better.

  • mary ray

    have planted some peas and this being scotland, it will some time before they are ready, however am looking forward to enjoying the ‘fresh from the plant to the pot’ experience. BTW, have you any recipes for cooking with peashoots? i have seen them on restaurant menus.

  • http://www.helengraves.co.uk Helen

    Yum , fresh peas! They are certainly a labour of love but so worth the effort. I get more pleasure from shelling broad beans though as I love the ultra-furry interior of the pods!

  • Hinke

    Hi Clothilde,

    I can also heartily recommend edamame (Japanese young soy beans). Cook for a few minutes, add salt and you’re good to go.

  • http://jeenaskitchen.blogspot.com Jeena

    I love fresh peas! Peas truly are one of my all time favourite vegetables. Great post. :-)

  • Bob

    Why, oh why would you cook them? We always grew peas when I was growing up, or bought them at farmer’s markets and ate them within hours. My mother, and my now ex-wife insisted on cooking them, and I followed my instincts and ate them when they weren’t looking. When I lived in France and Italy, I would buy them at farmer’s markets and eat them on the spot. You can always cook frozen peas, or add some fresh to pea soup. Peas do change within a day, same as fresh corn. My father would take the corn home from farmer’s market and throw it briefly in a preheated pot of boiling water.

    Get them fresh,and eat them fast.

    Best,

    Bob

  • http://del4yo.blogs.com/non_dairy_diary/ del4yo

    Thanks for bringing back fond memories of my mother wondering why, oh why her peas would never “give” anything in her vegetable crop.

    The bird who ate them had no wings.

  • pınar

    why don’t you try steaming them with diced onion and tomatoes, sprinkle some sugar while they cook and pour some olive oil..I slowly cook them with this ingredients but on the stove with little water and a lid on the pan. it tastes delicious.

  • Isabel

    Hi,
    dont’ you guys love to swish your hands inside the bowl of freshly shelled peas? It’s so wonderfull: almost liquid, and cool… There’s a french writer called Philipe Delerm who wrote an intire story about it in his book ‘La première gorgé de bière et autres plaisirs minuscules’. I think this gesture alone is worth the trouble of sheeling peas for hours!
    Best,
    Isabel

  • Dawn

    Fresh peas – aren’t they the most adorable vegetable? I was so enamored of them when they arrived in my CSA box a few weeks ago, I took a photo just like the one you posted. Those happy orbs peeking out from their little green boats… who can resist? Eaten fresh from the pod. YUM.

  • d

    we have the same mindset. must find the perfect can opener/citrus juicer. don’t like gadgets, but sometimes necessary. you’ll NEVER see me getting a garlic de-skinner. just slam your knife down on the clove,lazy cooks!if you’re ever in la, go to sawtelle in west la for great ramen.
    d

  • Carol Milstein

    Yes! Fresh (raw) peas! Canned ones from school lunch lines – YUCK! Frozen ones – only the “baby” ones if you can get them.
    But just out of the garden raw – bliss! Thanks everyone for your tales of your grandparents’ gardens. It brought back many memories. I’ll have to look hard at my farmer’s market this weekend, although Michigan weather has been a bit capricious (frost a week ago, 90′s today!). Hope my CSA has them when it starts up next week.
    Carol

  • http://www.aldenteblog.com/ KitchenMaus

    Last summer I became somewhat obsessed with fresh snap peas. I love throwing them in a quick sauce with prosciutto and cream and tossing it with pasta. Yum!

  • http://olipo.blogspot.com olipo

    Recently, I visited Paris. From my friends, I could hear that a lot of japanese and korean foods are loved by Parisiens. I tried two different korean restaurant. One is ” arbre du sel” I think that you can try that restaurant also. It’ll be very different experience.

  • http://food.gofrolic.org Debs

    I love fresh spring/summer peas, raw or lightly cooked. I’ve never had any problem shelling them. I actually find it pretty relaxing.

  • http://www.savorculture.com Danielle

    Hi Clotilde,

    I used your shelling technique, and it worked too well: the first quart of local peas I bought this season were consumed as they were shelled… by me. I shelled a second quart and used the peas in a hummus-type concoction. I just whirred the peas in my food processor with extra-virgin olive oil, mint, cilantro, salt and pepper. The resulting spread wasn’t a show stopper, but it was fresh, light, and healthy… three things that most dips are not! I served the pea hummus with blue corn chips because I liked the color combination of bright green and navy blue. Hooray for peas!

  • shiona

    When you can’t get fresh peas – why not try dried??? Classic, very old, traditional and favourite Scottish recipe… Peas and vinegar. Sounds maybe a bit strange but god, they’re good!!! Get some dried peas, soak overnight (or a tip I got once, bring them to the boil (from cold water) for 2 mins. only, then leave for 2 hours soaking, so you don’t need the overnight soak) and cook for whatever is recommended on the packet. Keep some of the cooking liquid, you want them well wet (not swimming), add salt only after cooking, otherwise they stay tough, lots of pepper and loads of vinegar. Dig in! They are the best thing on a cold day, or when you want some real, good comfort food… Yum…. Can’t beat them.

  • http://www.lawn-gardening-tools.com Preston

    If you have a large batch of peas you can try using a pea sheller. I shelled 4 bushels this weekend with my grandparents. We used a little hand turn one, however, there are some electric ones.

  • Andrea

    I too, like so many others, have fond memories of sitting out on the porch with my great aunt wiling away the afternoon hours shelling peas and preparing other vegetables for the dinner table. And it seems like forever since I’ve enjoyed these simple pleasures. Like so many others I’ve wondered why I can never find fresh peas at the local farmer’s market (marché Jean Talon in Montréal) and, it is as I was told: peas turn to starch very quickly and just don’t last as far as off-the-vine-and-to-the-market goes. For this reason, the local collective garden I belong to, Action communiterre, has decided to grow peas in our garden this year. As luck would have it, I found some beautiful pea shoots at the market yesterday which will make a lovely salad or sauté later today!

  • John M

    Way too Complicated. Here is how you shell a load of peas in no time. Freeze the peas – this has no effect on taste – then when frozen put in warm water and immediately start hustking those peas. You can just sqeeze themn out into the water and discard the shells. takes 1/4 the time of doing them unfrozen.

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