Filling Your Plate With Peas

Peas are the mature seeds of Pisum sativum. They share their species with sugar snap and snow peas. All of these varieites are legumes that belong to the the family Fabaceae, along with soybeansfava beans, common beans (green snap beanspinto beansheirloom beansGreat Northern beansblack turtle beans, kidney beans, and navy beans), black-eyed peasjicamaadzuki beanslentils, lima beanspeanutschickpeas, carob, and licorice. The family also includes broom, gorse, and kudzu.

Peas likely originated in Central Asia. Because most peas are cool-weather crops, their specific area of origin may have been in what is now northern India, Burma, or Northern Thailand. Archaeologists exploring the “Spirit Cave” on what is now the border between Burma and Thailand found peas that were carbon dated to 9750 BC. These were probably a variety of wild peas that were gathered rather than cultivated.

Peas were probably first domesticated in the Fertile Crescent region of Mesopotamia during the Holocene epoch, which began 11,700 years ago, along with flax, emmer wheat, barley, einkorn wheat, lentilschickpeas, and bitter vetch. Another archaeological dig at Jarmo in what is now northwestern Iraq uncovered peas that were dated between 7,000 and 6,000 BC.

Nomads and traders brought peas to Europe. They were found in a Swiss Bronze age site dating back to 3,000 BC.

By 500 BC, peas were a common peasant food in Greece, along with garliccabbage, onions, and fava beans.  In ancient Athens, hot pea soup was sold in the street as a take-away food.

Han dynasty representative Jang Qian brought peas to China about 100 BC, along with pomegranatesgrapescucumbers, coriander, walnuts, alfalfa, and caraway seeds.

The Roman cookbook De re coquinaria (“On the Subject of Cooking”) – Apicius, from the 4th–5th century AD, has nine recipes for peas, each involving extensive preparation, which testifies to the extent of their importance during that period. Apicius has two recipes for broad beans or peas à la Vitellius. Aulus Vitellius (15-69 AD) was emperor of Rome for just three months, the third emperor within a year during a civil war. His successor Vespiasianus ended the war and reigned until his death in 79 AD. Vitellius has been described by contemporary historians like Suetonius and Tacitus as a gluttonous, perverse brute. He does seem to have liked his food, enough to have at least three recipes named after him, two of them for peas. The recipes for peas can be found in the Fifth Book of De re coquinaria (Ospreon Liber Quintus), which contains dishes with legumes. The first recipe for pisam Vitellianam siue fabam is a purée of peas or broad beans, seasoned with pepper, lovage, and ginger, wine, and vinegar. The other recipe, which is reproduced below, is prepared with whole peas or broad beans. The first recipe may have been meant for dried legumes in winter, the second with fresh legumes in summer.

The original recipe from De re coquinaria – Apicius (recipe 5.3.9):

Pisam siue fabam Vitellianam : pisam siue fabam coquis. cum despumauerit mittis porrum coriandrum et flores maluarum. dum coquitur, teres piper ligusticum origanum feniculi semen, suffundis liquamen et uinum, <mittis> in caccabum, adicies oleum. cum ferbuerit, agitas. oleum uiridem insuper mittis et inferes.

Translation:

Vitellian peas or beans: cook the peas or beans; when you have skimmed them, put in leek and coriander and mallow flowers. While it is cooking, pound pepper, lovage, oregano, fennel seed; pour on liquamen and wine, put in the pan, add oil. When it is simmering, stir it, pour green oil on top and serve.

By the 7th century, the Chinese were cultivating peas, which they called hu tou, meaning “foreign legume.” They developed the edible-pod snow pea and ate it as a vegetable.

Charlemagne, also known as Charles the Great and Emperor of France, enjoyed importing new vegetables and fruits. When peas reached France about 800, he had them planted in his gardens.

During the Middle Ages, dried peas became a staple food of the European peasants, because they were inexpensive, plentiful, and stored well during the winter months,  providing filling, wholesome, inexpensive meals. By the 13th century, peas were a common food in France. By the end of the 14th century, Italian gardeners had cultivated tiny peas they named piselli novelli, which they ate fresh rather than dried.

When Catherine de Medici married Henry II of France in 1533, she brought many of her favorite foods with her from her Italian homeland, including piselli novelli. The new little peas were such a novelty compared to the dried peas that had become known as peasant fare that they became a fashion trend in French cuisine. The French then developed tiny peas called petit pois, a name that has remained since the 1500s. By the 1560s, peas became a familiar Lenten dish in France and England, although Lent was not the only time that peas were a staple of the English diet.

In the early 17th century, the Dutch and English developed edible-pod peas, also called mangetout (French for “eat all”). Sugar snap peas, which are a cross between English and snow peas, were probably first developed in the late 17th century. Nutritious and highly portable, dried peas were used by the early explorers of Canada to make pea soup. Toward the end of the 17th century, fresh peas were still such a rare delicacy that fantastic prices were sometimes paid for them in France.

King George III’s Enclosures Act of 1773 allotted large plots of commonly held farmland to private estates. It effectively denied the poor access to large fields, and they instead relied on small pieces of land to feed their families. Unable to grow sufficient food, they turned to commodities like dried peas that they could purchased cheaply.

Benjamin Thompson was a Massachusetts-born Lieutenant-Colonel in the Loyalist forces during the American Revolutionary War. After the end of the war, he moved to London, where he became a scientist and inventor and received a knighthood from King George III. He later moved to Bavaria, was made a Count of the Holy Roman Empire, and became known as Count Rumford. He was charged with providing the cheapest, most nutritious rations possible to people on welfare committed to workhouses. Rumford’s Soup, which he invented around 1800, was an early effort in scientific nutrition. It was made with potatoes, barley, peas, salt, and sour beer, and the Baviarian peasants adopted as a satisfying and inexpensive dish.

In the 19th century, M. Vilmorin-Andrieux wrote The Vegetable Garden, an encyclopedia of cultivated vegetable plants published in France, which devoted 50 pages to the different varieties of cultivated peas. Gregor Mendel, an Austrian monk educated ath the University of Vienna, conducted experiments on how pea plants reproduced in the 1860s, and created the science of genetics. Canned vegetables became available during the late 1800s. Peas were probably among the first vegetables to be canned by the Campbell Soup Company. The heat of the canning process destroys the chlorophyll that gives peas their natural bright green color, but the dull, olive green color and distinct canned flavor didn’t deter consumers. Canned peas became a familiar side dish on English and American dinner plates.

With the advent of frozen vegetables in the 1920s and 1930s, peas could be harvested and frozen almost immediately, preventing their sugars from turning to starch. Urban dwellers could enjoy the sweet flavor of freshly picked peas.

More than 1,000 varieties of peas exist today. France, China, Denmark, and Russia lead in the production of dried peas, while the U.S., England, Hungary, and India mainly produce fresh peas. China’s fresh peas consist mostly of snow peas.

Peas can:

  1. Build strong bodies. The vitamin K in peas helps protect your bones from fracture and helps prevent postmenopausal bone loss. Manganese in peas facilitates formation of bone. The vitamin C in peas helps produce collagen, which supports strong bones, muscles, blood vessels, gums, mucous membranes, corneas, joints, and other supporting cells and tissues and helps you absorb iron and calcium. You need the vitamin A in peas (made from many carotenoids) for vision, healthy skin and mucous membranes, bone and tooth growth, and immune system health. Saponins in peas prevent dental cavities, protect against bone loss, and increase the effectiveness of certain vaccines.
  2. Promote cardiovascular health. The vitamin K in peas helps prevent calcification of your arteries. The soluble fiber in peas reduces cholesterol levels. The formation of plaque along your blood vessel walls starts with chronic oxidative stress and inflammation. The strong antioxidant and anti-inflammatory protection in peas promotes healthy functioning of your blood vessels. Omega-3 essential fatty acids lower your risk of cardiovascular problems, and green peas are a reliable source of omega-3 fat in the form of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). High levels of homocysteine raise your risk of cardiovascular disease, but ample amounts of B vitamins help keep your homocysteine levels in check. Green peas provide you with very good levels of thiamine and folate, and good levels of riboflavin, niacin, choline, and vitamin B6. Saponins in peas lower blood cholesterol and decrease risk of cardiovascular disease.
    Peas are rich in phytosterols, especially ß-sitosterol, which help lower cholesterol levels in your body.
  3. Protect against cancer. The vitamin K in peas provides possible protection against liver and prostate cancer. The vitamin C in peas helps prevent cancer by neutralizing volatile oxygen free radical molecules and preventing damage to your DNA that can lead to cancer and by destabilizing a tumor’s ability to grow under oxygen-starved conditions. Stomach cancer occurs more commonly in persons who have very low intake of antioxidant and anti-inflammatory nutrients, including key nutrients called polyphenols. Eating green peas along with other legumes daily is associated with decreased risk of stomach cancer. In particular, decreased risk of stomach cancer was associated with average daily intake of a polyphenol called coumestrol at a level of 2 milligrams or higher, and one cup of green peas contains at least 10 milligrams of coumestrol. Saponins in peas prevent cancer cells from growing and mutating. Oxalic acid in peas is believed to be successful in fighting several kinds of tumor cells.
  4. Fight free radicals and chronic inflammation.  Manganese in peas is a co-factor for the antioxidant enzyme, superoxide dismutase, which disarms free radicals produced within the mitochondria (the energy production factories within your cells). The vitamin C in peas functions as an antioxidant and prevents oxygen-based damage to your cells. Green peas are loaded with antioxidants and anti-inflammatory phytochemicals, including the flavonoid antioxidants catechin and epicatechin, the carotenoids alpha-carotene and beta-carotene, the phenolic acids ferulic and caffeic acid, and the polyphenol coumestrol. The carotenoids lutein and zeaxanthin defend your cells from the damaging effects of free radicals, and protect your eyes from developing age-related macular degeneration and cataracts. Pisumsaponins and pisomosides are anti-inflammatory phytochemicals found almost exclusively in peas. Green peas are a reliable source of anti-inflammatory omega-3 fat in the form of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). Saponins in peas neutralize free radicals to prevent disease and reduce inflammation. Tannic acid in peas is a powerful antioxidant that may prevent Alzheimer’s disease, cancer, and diabetes.  Antioxidant and anti-inflammatory nutrients are associated with lower risk of most inflammatory diseases, including heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and arthritis.
  5. Regulate blood sugar.  Manganese in peas facilitates protein and carbohydrate metabolism. Green peas provide substantial amounts of protein and fiber, which directly regulate the pace at which you digest your food. By helping to regulate the pace of digestion, protein and fiber also help regulate the break down of starches into sugars and the general passage of carbohydrates through your digestive tract, which keeps your blood sugar levels steadier. Saponins in peas lower blood glucose responses. Green peas and other legumes can help you lower your fasting blood sugar as well as your fasting insulin levels. Your long-term control of blood sugar is also improved by eating green peas.

Nutrients in 1 Cup of Cooked Green Peas

Nutrient

Amount

Daily Value

vitamin K

35.68 µg

45%

manganese

0.72 mg

36%

vitamin C

19.56 mg

33%

fiber

7.58 g

30%

thiamine

0.36 mg

24%

vitamin A

1103.38 IU

22%

folate

86.78 µg

21%

phosphorus

161.17 mg

16%

vitamin B6

0.30 mg

15%

protein

7.38 g

15%

omega-3 fatty acid

30 mg

14%

magnesium

53.72 mg

13%

riboflavin

0.21 mg

12%

copper

0.24 mg

12%

iron

2.12 mg

12%

zinc

1.64 mg

11%

potassium

373.3 mg

11%

choline

40.91 mg

10%

niacin

21.53 mg

7%

Calories

115.71

7%

iodine

7 µg

5%

selenium

2.62 µg

4%

calcium

37.19 mg

4%

carbohydrates

7.55 g

3%

pantothenic acid

0.21 mg

2%

vitamin E

0.19 mg

1%

fat

0.3 g

0.5%

sodium*

4.13 mg

0.2%

cholesterol

0 mg

0%

lutein+zeaxanthin

3571.86 µg

carotene-ß

647.42 µg

carotene-a

30.30 µg

Fresh peas are generally available from spring through the beginning of winter. Look for ones whose pods are firm, velvety, and smooth and a lively medium green. Avoid pods whose green color is especially light or dark, or those that are yellow, whitish, or are speckled with gray. Also avoid pods that are puffy, water-soaked, or have mildew residue. Gently shake the pod and notice whether there is a slight rattling sound. No sound means that the pods contain peas of sufficient number and size and that there is not much empty room in the pod. All varieties of fresh peas should be displayed in a refrigerated case, because heat will hasten the conversion of their sugar content into starch.

If you will not be using fresh peas on the day of purchase, which is the best way to enjoy them, you should refrigerate them as quickly as possible in order to preserve their sugar content, preventing it from turning into starch. Unwashed, unshelled peas stored in the refrigerator in a bag or unsealed container will keep for several days. Fresh peas can also be blanched for one or two minutes and then frozen for 6-12 months.

Only about 5% of the peas grown are sold fresh; the rest are either frozen or canned. Frozen peas are better able to retain their color, texture, and flavor than canned peas.

*Both canned and frozen peas may contain relatively high levels of sodium. Typically, there are 650-800 milligrams of sodium in one cup of canned green peas; reduced sodium canned peas contain 250-300 milligrams of sodium. Some of this sodium can be removed by thorough rinsing. Frozen green peas typically contain 300 milligrams of sodium in one cup. This relatively high sodium level in frozen peas results from green pea processing methods. When large batches of peas are prepared for freezing, producers separate out the older and starchier peas prior to freezing. A common method used to separate out the starchier peas is to immerse them in salty water. This process allows the younger, more tender, and less starchy peas to float on top of the salt water, while letting the older, less tender, and starchier peas to sink to the bottom. Even though the younger and less starchy peas are rinsed with water after being separated out, they can still contain relatively high levels of sodium.

Eat frozen peas within 6-12 months of the packing date, or well before the “use by” date.

Before you remove the peas from the pod, rinse them briefly under running water. To easily shell them, snap off the top and bottom of the pod and then gently pull off the “string” that lines the seam of most pods. For pods that do not have “string,” carefully cut through the seam, making sure not to cut into the peas. Gently open the pods to remove the peas, which do not need to be washed because they have been encased in the pod.

The classic way of cooking peas is to line a saucepan with several leaves of washed Boston or Bibb lettuce and then place the peas on the lettuce. You can then add fresh herbs and spices if you desire. Cover the peas with more lettuce leaves, add one or two tablespoons of water, and cover the pan. Cook the peas for about 15 to 20 minutes, after which they should be tender and flavorful.

To sauté green peas, heat 3 tablespoons of vegetable broth or water in a stainless steel skillet. After bubbles begin to form, add green peas, cover, and sauté for 3 minutes. Transfer to a bowl and toss with our Pomegranate Vinaigrette.

Peas blend well with vegetables like green beanspotatoes, and carrots in variety of recipes either stewed, in curry, stir fries, or soups. Season peas with basil, chervil, chives, curry, dillmint, nutmeg, marjoram, onionparsley, sage, rosemary, or thyme.

Here are some serving ideas:

  • Add fresh peas to green salads.
  • Mix green peas with tempeh, diced onions, and almonds to make a delicious and colorful salad.
  • Pack fresh pea pods in a lunch box.
  • Toss peas into stews, especially those with potatoescarrotscabbage, and scallions.

This blog uses the latest nutritional data available from the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture), and the FDA (United States Food and Drug Administration), as well as nutritional data provided by food growers and manufacturers about their products. We believe the information on this website to be accurate. However, we are not responsible for typographical or other errors. Nutrition information for recipes is calculated by Living Cookbook based on the ingredients in each recipe based on statistical averages. Nutrition may vary based on methods of preparation, origin and freshness of ingredients, and other factors.

This blog is not a substitute for the services of a trained health professional. Although we provide nutritional information, the information on this blog is for informational purposes only. No information offered by or through this blog shall be construed as or understood to be medical advice or care. None of the information on this blog should be used to diagnose or treat any health problem or disease. Consult with a health care provider before taking any product or using any information on this blog. Please discuss any concerns with your health care provider.

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