By Dorothy Dobbie
Technically and botanically, peas are a fruit, because their seeds are developed from the ovary of the pea flower. But nobody eats them as fruit, although sugar snap peas are very sweet. Sugar snap peas are a cross between common garden peas and snow peas. They are not only sweet, they are crunchy—the perfect mange-tout, French for “eat it all”.
The botanical name for peas is Pisum sativum. Fresh shelled green peas from the pod are semi-mature seeds, which we eat boiled or steamed. The hard peas we use for soups are the ripe, dried yellow or green seeds that are split in half, hence split peas.
Pea flowers are equipped with both male and female parts and are perfectly capable of self-pollinating. This takes place inside the pretty white flower before it even opens.
Garden peas need to be cooked and eaten as soon as possible after picking. As time goes on, the peas inside the pod become mealy and mushy, something that also happens if left on the vine too long.
Most people like peas. The Latin phrase, manducandum pisum elit necesse est, non vivere, (eating pea soup is necessary, living is not necessary) probably says it all. Peas contain a lot of protein, a huge dose of vitamin C as well as vitamins B6, K, phosphorous, magnesium, copper, zinc and lutein. Four ounces of dried split peas contain one ounce of protein. They also contain 8 per cent sugar (starch) but to balance that off, the same amount delivers 26 per cent fibre.
A few people are allergic to peas. These are likely to be the same folks who are allergic to peanuts, soy and beans, all legumes. The most common symptom is an itchy skin rash.
We are often told that legumes such as peas are nitrogen fixers, but what does this mean? Legumes enjoy a symbiotic relationship with rhizobia bacteria that live in the root zone. They invade the root and multiply, forming nodules where they feed on nutrients and energy from the plant and in the process release nitrogen in a form the plant can use. On peas, the nodules are round and can become the size of a pea. They are replaced regularly during plant growth as the plant begins to send its energy to the development of its fruit. If a plant demonstrates poor growth and is light green, it maybe be a lack of native rhizobia in the soil.
Boiling or steaming peas breaks down cell walls making nutrients more available to humans. Peas are one vegetable that handle freezing very well and are a great addition to many dishes to give them a touch of glamour.
The British like to cook peas with a big handful of mint—delicious. Another favourite English dish is peas porridge, made from split peas, a little water, salt and pepper and perhaps some additional seasoning with a ham hock or bacon. Its consistency is like that of porridge.
Sweet pea, Lathyrus odoratus, is another order of plant all together. They are grown only for their beautifully scented flowers. Don’t eat them. Sweet peas can be quite toxic to people, leading to scurvy-like symptoms including loose skin.