Historically peas were dried and used during the winter, popular among Roman soldiers to supplement their rations. Peas truly came into their own during the European famines of the Middle Ages, singled out for praise by Charles the Good, Count of Flanders in 1124.
In England during the Early Modern period, new varieties of peas with better flavour were developed, and it became fashionable for people to eat them fresh.
Peas are a particularly useful all-round food and are a good source of dietary fibre, folate, riboflavin plus vitamins B6 and C. They are also a source of niacin and thiamine. In addition, they are one of the best vegetable sources of protein. The major phytonutrients in peas are the carotenoids, phenolic compounds, including some flavonoids as well as phenolic acids. Snow peas are a good source of vitamin C and a source of dietary fibre, folate, iron, vitamin A and thiamine.
Snow peas are also known as mange tout, which translates into English as 'eat all'. Both the seed (the pea itself) and the pod are eaten. They are almost completely flat with little bumps where the peas are inside the pod. Differing varieties exist, some of which may be referred to as sugar peas or sugar snap peas. With some of these varieties, the peas are more developed before harvesting. Snow peas are used in Asian cooking and salads.
When purchasing, look for firm, bright green pods that are not too full. Snow peas should have very small peas in the pod. Peas are available all year round but are predominantly grown between November and February. However, even in season, the supply may be limited. Snow peas are available between October and April, with limited supply in May, June and September. Due to their relatively short season, most peas grown in New Zealand are eaten processed.
Fresh peas and snow peas should be refrigerated in plastic bags and used as soon as possible. The fresher the peas, the better and sweeter they taste – a common mistake is overcooking. Remove peas from pods just before cooking. Snow peas can be topped and tailed, but depending on the end use, this is not always necessary.
Fresh peas are often steamed or boiled, with some fresh mint leaves. They can be used in soup, puréed, or served with meat. Snow peas can be lightly cooked until tender but still crisp. Use snow peas in stir-fries and use peas and snow peas in salads, either raw or cooked.
Mikey Newlands, chef and owner of Ampersand Eatery in Orakei, Auckland uses them in his asparagus and pea risotto.