By Kerri Conan
Pardon the circular logic, but peas are perfected by cooking perfectly. Of course you can eat them raw, but why would you? Their flavor, color, texture, and digestibility are all improved by heating. Either that, or ruined by it.
Over the decade that my husband Sean and I have been growing—and cooking—peas in our Kansas garden, we’ve tried at least a dozen different ways to perfect them for both immediate and future eating. Our experiments with assorted varieties of snow and snap peas have resulted in clunkers and epiphanies. I’ll spare you the suspense and spill the hardly surprising technique that works best: shocking.
The classic dip-in-boiling-water-immediately-plunge-in-ice-water method is designed to suspend the animation of vegetables. And it is absolutely essential if you plan on freezing vegetables, as we do our peas. I don’t want to go all scientific on you, so please just trust me when I say that shocking ensures you’ll actually want to eat the peas six months later when they thaw out.
But shocking is a bit of a pain, not so much for the setup—fetching a bowl of ice water is hardly onerous—but the stress of counting one-one-thousand, two-one-thousand, after or before the water returns to a boil, while poking at the peas with a spider and watching them run through shades of green faster than flipping through color chips at a paint shop. There’s too much at stake.
For everyday pea eating we had to develop another way, which is how Sean came to perfect pea-cooking method number two: The shallow poach. (Also known as the water stir-fry or the sugarless, fatless glaze.) When dinner is totally ready—the meat is reposing, the rice is resting, the salad is tossed, the beans are creamy, whatever—simply bring 1/4 inch of water to boil in a skillet. Add the peas and keep them moving only until all become vibrant. No more than a simple count to 15. Then remove the pan from heat and serve them with a slotted spoon.
Go ahead and salt or butter them if you must, but these additions tend to mask rather than enhance the flavor of snow and snap peas. We’ve tried cooking them directly in different fats over both high and low heats, cooking them with a pinch of sugar, sticking them in the microwave (nice, but out of control), and even roasting them (a shriveled, chewy disaster). Turns out that delicate, in-season peas taste best when they’re cooked in the same precious liquid that nurtures them on the stem. Duh. Another long circular journey with less than shocking results.