This Spring’s Featured Food is Peas.
Peas grow on vines. Pea pods filled with round seeds develop from flowers of all colors. Peas are usually green, but they can also be yellow or purple.
A pea is simultaneously a fruit, vegetable and legume. In botany, a fruit is a ripened plant ovary containing seeds. A vegetable is generally defined as the edible portion of a plant, consumed as part of a savory meal. Many of the plants we call vegetables are botanically fruits, like tomatoes, zucchini, avocados, and green beans. A legume is the fruit of a plant in the family Fabaceae. 1
The earliest archeological finds of peas date from 4000 BC in the Mediterranean basin (Greece) and Middle East (Syria, Turkey, Jordan, Egypt). Wild pea plants were selected for their number of seeds, improving their yield. These original domesticated crops produced dried field peas.
During this Neolithic period, many cultures transitioned from a lifestyle of hunting and gathering to one of agriculture and settlement. Cultivated grains and legumes, such as peas, became staple foods that enabled the support of increasing populations, keeping famine at bay.
Dried field peas were cooked into porridge and soups. Continued cultivation produced garden peas (inedible pod, starchier peas), sugar snap peas (edible pod, sweeter peas) and snow peas (flat edible pod, undeveloped peas) in the 17th century. These peas were eaten while green, immature and fresh. They quickly gained popularity in Europe.
Françoise d’Aubigné, Marquise de Maintenon, second wife of King Louis XIV of France, wrote that “[t]his subject of [green] peas continues to absorb all others [in the French Court]…for four days past. Some ladies, even after having [well] supped at the Royal table…returning to their own homes at the risk of suffering from indigestion, will again eat peas before going to bed. It is both a fashion and a madness.”
The popularity of green peas spread to North America with the colonists. Thomas Jefferson reportedly grew over 30 cultivars of peas on his estate. 2
Gregor Mendel, the founder of the modern science of genetics, chose peas for his experiments in Austria in the 19th century. Mendel chose peas because he could grow them easily, develop pure-bred strains, and control their pollination.
Mendel cross bred peas with different traits, such as tall and dwarf plants, yellow and green peas, purple and white flowers, and wrinkled and smooth peas. He then observed their offspring. He found that for each case, one trait was dominant and the other recessive. The recessive trait appeared only when it was inherited from both parents.
Mendel grew and examined ~28,000 pea plants in the course of his experiments. He solved a question left unanswered by Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution of how genetic traits are preserved. 3
Today, Dutch researchers are studying how to grow peas on Mars. Their goal is to provide a source of food for its first settlers. Tomatoes, quinoa, rye, arugula, spinach, radishes, leeks, chives and garden cress are also being studied.
Seeds were sewn in trays with either simulated NASA Mars soil, simulated NASA moon soil, or Earth soil as a control. Plants were cultivated in a green house under constant temperature, humidity and light conditions and earth atmosphere. “This is because we expect that first crop growth on Mars and moon will take place in underground rooms to protect the plants from the hostile environment including cosmic radiation,” stated researcher Wamelink.
Although the researchers harvested edible crops, they did not eat them. “The soils contain heavy metals like lead, arsenic and mercury and also a lot of iron,” explained Wamelink. “If the components become available for the plants, they may be taken up and find their way into the fruits, making them poisonous.”
Their next stage of Mars crop experimentation will focus on food safety. The new batch of crops will also include potatoes and beans. If the crops prove to be safe enough to eat, the funders will be invited for dinner where a ‘Martian meal‘ will be served that includes the harvest. 4
The English village of Peasenhall, Suffolk hosts an annual ‘Peasenhall Pea Festival‘ attracting hundreds of visitors. Events include Pea Shooting, the World Pea Podding Championships and National Pea Eating competition. 5
Legumes, including peas, are rich sources of dietary protein, comprised of nitrogenous amino acids. Their root nodules contain symbiotic bacteria called rhizobia. Rhizobia have the special ability of “capturing” nitrogen for the plant.
Thus, legume plants can also be a fertilizer for the soil. When a pea plant dies in the field following harvest, its remaining amino acid nitrogen is released back into the soil, serving as fertilizer for future crops.
Peas are rich sources of carbohydrate, protein, fiber, vitamin A, vitamin B6, vitamin C, vitamin K, phosphorus, magnesium, copper, iron, zinc and lutein. 6
This Spring’s Featured Recipe is for Snap Pea Stir Fry. Sweet snap peas are best enjoyed while fresh and crispy. This quick toss in a skillet with nutty sesame oil and crunchy cashews preserves the peas’ snap and vivid green color. Garlic, ginger and a sprinkle of salt and fresh pepper enhance their fresh flavor.
Snap Pea Stir Fry
Preparation Time: 20 minutes
Yield: 1 serving
1 cup sugar snap peas, sliced diagonally
1 clove garlic, sliced
2 slices ginger, peeled
1 teaspoon sesame oil
Salt and pepper to taste
Optional: 1/4 cup cashews
wok or pan
Slice peas, garlic and ginger.
Add oil, garlic and ginger to wok on medium-high heat. Stir with spatula.
Add peas and cashews. Season with salt and pepper. Stir with spatula. Discard ginger slices.
Plate stir fried snap peas and serve.