It’s silly, but I feel an almost childlike joy at the sight of the first sweet pea bloom of the spring. I’m not alone either – my whole family has a place in their own personal cycle of seasons for this small, delicate, softly fragrant flower. The bed next to the kitchen is the center of the sweet pea universe in our yard. Every year, the blossoms we don’t cut reseed the 3 by 6 foot area for the following year. For my wife, Erin, the bed feeds the bathroom bud vases for the last six weeks of spring. For my kids, unevenly cut bouquets with short and long stems wrapped in a damp paper towel go to a delighted grandma. For me, sweet peas remind me (sadly) that daffodils are finished and tulips almost so, but also (happily) that the peas we eat are almost ready.
Peas are the best garden plant on the planet if you live in a place that has a long cool spring. Even if you don’t and you time the planting right, shelling peas are one of the most rewarding crops to harvest fresh out of a garden. Like corn, English peas are best served right after harvest – the sugars convert to starch the longer you get from the harvest date before eating. Peas are also incredibly prolific producers. A single snow pea plant, for example, can produce several pounds of peas in a season.
At different points in the spring, depending on where you live, peas will make a short but wondrous debut at a farmers market near you. This is an important crop for many growers because peas help bridge the gap between the winter and summer harvest seasons. Peas are an important cash crop for growers who specialize in summer vegetables because it provides them with much needed cash flow at a time when summer crops (like tomatoes) need maintenance but are not producing income. So the next time you buy a field tomato in August, bear in mind that it was peas, in some cases, that helped bring that tomato to market.
For grocery stores to offer peas as a year round item requires a global perspective and exacting attention to detail. Fresh shelling peas are highly seasonal, available in retail volumes only when production is close enough to the U.S. to deliver a sweet, non-starchy product. Snow peas and snap peas (the happy accidental blend of snow and shelling peas) can travel thousands of miles and still be sweet and tasty, so the supply lines have grown progressively longer and longer over the years. But by the late spring, peas are popping up all over the U.S.
Pea production in the northern and coastal growing areas also coincides with the start of the domestic corn season. This gives me all the ingredients I need for one of my favorite spring/ summer simple sauté dishes:
James’ Sorta Succotash
1/3 pound mushrooms (white or brown), sliced
1 small red bell pepper (diced into small pieces)
Green garlic (or garlic clove), to taste
1 pound of English peas, shelled (about ¾ cup of peas)
3 ears of corn, shuck and cut the kernels off the cob (about ¾ cup)
Salt and pepper to taste
In a large skillet, heat a bit of olive oil, add the peppers and mushrooms and sauté over high heat until the edges are browning and the mushrooms are cooked thoroughly. Add the green garlic, corn and peas and sauté for another couple of minutes or so – you are really just heating the corn and peas (do not overcook). Salt and pepper to taste. Serve with roasted chicken, fish or simply on its own.
For years I’ve mailed sweet pea seeds with my Christmas cards – the plant being one of my favorites as well as the anchor stems that reach out like thin hands for something to grab onto in order to support the plant. The seeds and cards go out to different people every year and sometime I get back: “Uh, what do I do with this?” Other times I hear the seeds have taken root and another colony of sweet peas is born. That’s my plan — everyone should have a little patch of happiness nearby.