Seasonal Eats: Peas and Beans
Seductively sweet shell peas. Satisfyingly snappy string beans. Buttery, fuzz-covered favas. Delicate, dazzlingly green legumes of all shapes and sizes are one of the greatest delights of spring, shooting their tender tendrils from the ground the second the ground warms.
There are literally dozens of varieties of green beans (sometimes called snap beans because of the sound their fresh pods make when broken in half, or string beans if they have a fibrous string that runs down the side); including slim haricot vert or Asian yard-long bean. And incidentally, they’re not even always green; think scarlet runner bean or yellow or purple wax beans.
Fresh shell beans are beans that swell in the pod to their maximum size but have not yet started to dry, such as butterbean, favas, flageolets, limas or soybeans. There are also English-style garden peas (or shell peas) which should be plucked from their pods before cooking, as well as flat and crunchy snow peas (a favorite in stir-fries) or sugary snap peas, which can be consumed whole and raw; nature’s perfect, ready-to-go snack.
Needless to say, the potpourri of peas and beans have afforded chefs ample opportunity to play; Alex Stupak is tossing Chopped Cabbage Salad with toasted fava bean dressing at his posh new outpost of Empellon, and Squid keeps company with lemon butter and fresh shell peas at Gloria; New York’s first “pescatarian” restaurant. Legumes are — unsurprisingly — all over the menu at Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s wholly vegetarian abcV; we’re talking Green Chickpea Hummus, Shallot and Fava Labneh, Meyer Lemon Ramen with pea shoots and Shelling Beans in Treviso dressing. Dan Kluger’s spring menu at Loring Place boasts a Market Grains Salad with English peas and Sugar Snap Peas with radishes, and the equally seasonally-minded Rouge Tomate offers both Chilled Beet Soup and Walu Carpaccio crowned with snap peas, while Villanelle even features them in dessert; serving Meringue paired with watermelon sorbet, and a scattering of shelled peas.
When it comes to purchasing peas, choose small peas, which are younger, sweeter, and more tender than large ones, and make sure they’re as fresh as possible. Once picked, peas’ high sugar content changes, causing them to lose much of their sweetness and become starchy and dull. You know peas are fresh when their pods are firm and green, so avoid any that are yellowing or wilting. Go for medium pods rather than large, thick-skinned ones, which are more mature and contain larger, tougher peas. Break open a pod and check the peas inside. They should be small, bright green, and firm; if you taste one, it should be tender and sweet.
As for beans, choose firm pods without blemishes or yellow spots. Avoid pods that are starting to dry out or that have beans bulging in the pod. These usually indicate beans that are over the hill.
It’s best to eat and enjoy fresh peas on the day you buy them. If this is not possible, it is best to refrigerate them as quickly as possible. Otherwise, the sweet sugar will turn to starch rather quickly. Store peas unwashed, unshelled in the refrigerator in a perforated bag or unsealed container that will allow some air to circulate around them. They will keep for several days. Fresh peas can be blanched in boiling water for one to two minutes and subsequently frozen for up to six months.
To prepare sugar snaps, fold back stem and pull away the fibrous string that runs the length of the pod. For string beans, use a paring knife to trim away the stem end. As for favas — one of our favorite in-the-shell beans — take them out of their pods as you would with fresh peas. Then remove the waxy skin that covers each individual bean. To make easier work of removing the skin, first blanch the beans in boiling water for about one minute. Then rinse them in cool water and drain. The beans should now slip right out of their skins.
The secret to maintaining the sweetness and bright-green color of peas and beans is to boil, steam, sauté, stir-fry or braise as briefly as possible; just long enough to make them tender. They’re awesome buttered and tossed with tarragon and mint as a simple side dish, fantastic when pureed into soup, and stellar scattered in risotto or pasta. Most of them are unbeatable eaten raw, or incorporated into salads. Cured meats like bacon, pancetta, prosciutto, smoked ham, and chorizo work wonderfully with peas, as their pronounced saltiness complements peas’ gentle flavor. Peas are also a natural with onions, scallions, and other alliums, and they pair well with spring vegetables like asparagus, new potatoes, artichokes and carrots. So don’t sleep on peas and beans; two of spring’s most welcome, seasonal gifts.
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