It’s been so hot lately (90-degrees in May? Really?) that it feels like we should skip all further discussion of spring vegetables, and move right onto eggplant and tomatoes. And yet, those bright green pods busting with sweet, emerald-colored seeds are, in actuality, still at the beginning of their season, and we hope the sweltering sun doesn’t cause them to shrivel anytime soon.
Peas and beans are pretty basic terms, and actually apply to a variety of vegetables. Peas eaten fresh as whole pods include the broad, flat snow peas that star in Chinese stir-fries as well as plumper, rounder, bright green sugar snap peas. The most common variety for shelling is the English, or garden pea. Baby peas, or petits pois, refer to tiny, sweet English peas, while so-called early, or June, peas are larger and have more starch.
And what about beans? Green beans actually belong to the same family as shell beans, such as pinto beans, black beans, and kidney beans. However, since green beans are usually picked while still immature and while the inner beans are just beginning to form in the pod, they are typically eaten in fresh (versus dried) form, pod and all. Also commonly referred to as string beans, the string that once was their trademark (running lengthwise down the seam of the pod) can seldom be found in modern varieties. It’s for this reason (the breeding out of the “string”) that string beans are often referred to as “snap beans.” Because they are picked at a younger, immature stage, “snap beans” can literally be snapped in half with a simple twist of the fingers. You may also see especially thin, tender green beans referred to as “haricot vert”— a term that simply means “green bean” in French.
And don’t forget about favas! Also known as broad beans, English beans or horse beans, these shell beans come in large pods and are available fresh for a brief period in the spring, primarily at farmers’ markets and increasingly at supermarkets as well. Fava beans resemble lima beans and have a rich, buttery flavor.
Unsurprisingly, peas and beans of all forms are omnipresent on restaurant menus right now. Take Untitled at the Whitney Museum, where Michael Anthony offers Sugar Snap Peas tossed with beets and herbed buttermilk. At Mathieu Palombino’s La Gamelle, the tres French side dishes include both Haricot Vert, slicked with shallots and garlic butter, and Petit Pois, paired with pearl onions, ham and lettuce. And at the recently expanded Dimes, you’ll find English peas in a Spring Salad, along with market greens, asparagus, and a mint-basil vinaigrette.
Peas are definitely big at the brand new Bushwick spot, Faro, found in a Sweet Pea Porridge with morels, local grains and whey, and scattered atop a Wood-fire Roasted Porgy, along with bottarga and emmer. Also notable in Brooklyn is Pappardelle piled with ramps, fava beans, pesto and ricotta, at Nate Smith’s just-opened Bar Bolinas in Clinton Hill. There are favas at Rebelle, too — the wine-centric French bistro from the team behind Pearl & Ash — used to compliment a perfect for spring Lamb Tartare.
Not that you need to be a chef to get your hands on a bounty of beans and peas — you just need to know how to pick ‘em. Choose fresh peas with crisp, smooth, glossy, bright green pods. Avoid any that are wilted, dried, puffy or blemished. Purchase beans that have a smooth feel and a vibrant green color, and that are free from brown spots or bruises. They should have a firm texture and “snap” when broken. For favas, select soft, pale green pods packed with pale green beans. If possible, purchase your peas or beans at a farmer’s market that sells them loose, so that you can sort through them to choose the beans of best quality.
Store unwashed fresh bean pods in a plastic bag kept in the refrigerator crisper, and they should keep for about seven days. But keep in mind that, because their natural sugar begins converting to starch immediately after they are picked, peas should be prepared and eaten as soon as possible, preferably the day of purchase.
To use whole pea pods, snap off the tips of the pods, pulling down the length of the pod to remove any tough strings as well. Although many modern hybrids have no strings or the peas are processed before reaching the store, it is best to check. Whether pods or shelled, peas are best if steamed or blanched very briefly to retain their crisp texture and vibrant color.
For English peas, shell them just before cooking to prevent them from drying out and work over a large bowl. After checking for and removing any strings as described above, squeeze the pod and press your thumb against the seam to split it open. Continuing the same movement, sweep your thumb down along the inside of the pod to pop out the peas. Discard the pod, and cover peas with damp paper towels or cold water to keep them moist.
Although fava beans require a bit of work to shell and peel, they’re well worth the effort. Shell them as you would peas by first snapping off the stem and pulling away the tough string on the side of the pod. Then pop each pod open by pressing your thumbnails along its seam. Unless they have been picked while still quite young and small, the skin that covers each shelled bean must be removed before eating, as it is tough and bitter tasting. To remove the skins, drop the shelled beans into a pot of boiling water and blanch for 2 to 3 minutes, then drain and rinse under cold running water. Pinch each bean opposite the end where it was attached to the pod and squeeze; the bean should pop free. Use a paring knife to remove any stubborn skins.
Once your peas or beans are prepped, the sky’s the limit for how to use them. In addition to eating them raw, sweet young peas can be stirred into risotto, tossed into stir-fries, used to top crostinis, or pureed into a cool spring soup. Green beans are wonderful when served as a simple side dish, flavored with pesto, toasted nuts and crumbled cheese, or crowned with a runny yolked egg; or as a base for salads, with a variety of other fresh, market vegetables and vibrant dressings. And since favas scream spring, feel free to throw them into just about anything; blanch and roast them alongside meats or fish, tumble fat pods with buttery strands of pasta, or make a Mediterranean-style mash paved with olive oil, to be scooped up with pita chips, crudite, or even your fingers!
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