Thanks to global agriculture, and especially to a giant who happens to be green, we’ve forgotten that peas have always been a springtime delicacy. In cuisines that have retained a more seasonal approach than our own, fresh peas as green as that laughing giant on the can are a symbol of the end of another winter.
Frankly, we don’t know why some people don’t love peas. Clearly, their parents never allowed them to mix their bright green orbs with buttered mashed potatoes, with maybe a quick shake of black pepper. No wonder they are unconvinced. Yet the fresh peas of spring, and their closest kin in the freezer section of your supermarket, remain one of the earth’s simplest delicacies.
You might think peas hail originally from someplace familiar in Europe, from Italy or France or Germany, all cultures that do very nice things with them. But while the history is typically murky – no chef invented peas in some “Eureka!” moment, for instance – the origins go back a bit farther to the east. Whatever Eureka moment was enjoyed, a whole lot of them came after. Peas were, we’re told, one of the first “vegetables” to ever be cultivated.
Green peas, part of a larger family called legumes or pulses, have been grown for human enjoyment for more than 10,000 years. That’s a whole lot of mashed potatoes, butter and black peppers under the bridge.
Like many of us in our younger years, peas started out wild – growing wild, that is, somewhere around the Mediterranean region that includes North Africa. The first evidence of cultivation, though, comes to us from the Middle East. Perhaps the Middle East figured out how to grow peas as food, then handed the program back to Europe, which presumably didn’t even say Thank You. We know the Austrian monk Gregor Mendel used peas to study plant heredity, his work a foundation of modern agriculture.
Peas were popular in England as far back as anyone can remember – the most iconic version being the gross-sounding but still-delicious “mushy peas,” just about mandatory with fish and chips or meat pies – which meant that they also followed English colonists to the New World. Thomas Jefferson grew more than 30 varieties of peas at Monticello.
Americans come by our love of peas honestly, then, which marks a pleasant change of pace. So many things, from tomatoes to chocolate, potatoes to corn, were taken to Europe from the New World in what came to be known as the “Columbian Exchange.”
As to why we put the word “vegetable” in quotes above, there’s a simple enough reason. Like tomatoes and a few other beloved foods, peas are technically, botanically a fruit, though they are “used as a vegetable.” And used and used and used, if we list the number of dishes using peas in cuisines from every corner of the globe.
Of course, don’t go looking for a bush or tree growing those tiny green balls we know and love. Peas grow several to a pod, just waiting for the day we release them and boil them or steam them to make them extra sweet, tender and delicious. And that traditionally happens in the spring. Peas and springtime are like, well, two peas in a pod.
SPRINGTIME CACIO E PEPE
In the bustling streets of Italy, especially in Rome, cacio e pepe (meaning: cheese and pepper) is a popular street food – not least because it’s so easy to make from only pasta, butter and pepper, with an omnipresent sprinkle of grated cheese. In honor of the season, we start with green peas and let the spirit move us from there.
3 slices thick-cut bacon
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
½ stick butter
1 tablespoon coarsely ground black pepper
¼ cup sliced red onion
1 cup chopped white mushrooms
1 cup green peas
6 cups cooked penne, ½ cup pasta water reserved
Grated pecorino, parmesan or romano cheese
Additional black pepper
Salt to taste
In a large skillet or pan, cook the bacon in the olive oil until crispy. Drain the bacon on a paper towel and pour off any grease that pours. Add the butter and melt it with the pepper over medium-high heat. Caramelize the red onion in the butter for 1 minute, then add the mushrooms and peas, cooking for 2 minutes more. Crumble the bacon and add it back into the pan. Add the cooked penne and reserved water, along with a sprinkle of cheese. Stir to combine. Season with additional pepper and salt, depending on the saltiness of the bacon. Serve hot with additional cheese for sprinkling. Serves 6.