What it is: “English,” “garden” or “green” peas (Pisum sativum) are delectable, small, round, sweet vegetables that grow on vines inside inedible pods.
Today, only about 5 percent of peas are sold fresh; more than half are canned, and the rest are frozen. The flavors of these three preparations are much more pronounced than many other vegetables, and if you’ve never tried the fresh version, you owe yourself a springtime treat. Imported peas are in stores now, but locally grown fresh peas — the best! — are usually only available for a short time, typically from May through June.
Where it comes from: Peas of various sorts have been eaten at least since the Bronze Age, and archeological evidence found in Hungary suggests they may be even older. Wild plants of related species in middle Asia, the Near East and Ethiopia, however, suggest they may have originally been cultivated there; no one has ever found a wild version of P. sativum.
Peas started out being grown for their dry seeds, but by the 12th century references to “green peas” appeared in England, and in the 16th century, detailed descriptions appeared.
The name “pea” comes to English from the Latin Pisum; originally “pease,” it began to sound like a plural and eventually contracted to “pea.” Most Americans use “peas” to mean fresh green peas while other types — cowpeas, blackeye peas, crowder peas, et al. — are described with adjectives to distinguish them. The proper name “English peas” arose due to extensive plant breeding in Great Britain.
What to do with it: Particularly if you buy them at farmers’ markets, fresh peas may come still in their pods, which are not edible, and must be removed before cooking (just pull the “string” down one side — although some people like to steam the peas in their pods and eat them by scraping the pods through their teeth). However, shelled peas are increasingly available in the spring. Use them promptly, because their delicate flavor dulls with long storage. Boil or steam just until crisp-tender. They’re delicious with just a bit of butter, but lend themselves to all kinds of seasonings, too.
Chef Jonathan Lane at Benny’s Chop House in River North combines fresh peas with mint, a classic pairing, and uses them as a filling for pasta.
Benny’s Chop House’s spring pea and mint tortelloni with ricotta salata
Chef Jonathan Lane
1 pound all-purpose flour
5 whole eggs
3 egg yolks
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon whole milk
Pea and mint filling:
2 cups ricotta cheese
2 cups fresh English peas, blanched and cooled
1/2 cup chopped fresh mint
Salt and ground white pepper to taste
Grated ricotta salata and toasted pumpkin seeds for garnish
Make the pasta: Place flour on a work surface and create a circular well. In the center of the flour place 4 of the eggs, the yolks, oil and milk. With a fork, slowly incorporate the flour into the wet mix until completely incorporated.
Work the pasta dough with the heel of your palm until the dough is smooth and shiny.
Prepare the filling: Combine the ricotta cheese, peas and mint and mix until all the ingredients are thoroughly incorporated. Season with salt and white pepper.
In a pasta machine, roll the pasta dough to 1/16 inch, starting at the widest setting and gradually making it thinner, or roll out with a rolling pin. Cut the dough into 2-by-2-inch squares. Place a spoonful of the pea filling into the center of the square of pasta. Beat the last egg with a tablespoon of water, and spread a light coating of egg wash on the outer edges of the pasta.
Take 1 end of the pasta square and fold over to the end to make a triangle. Take the two wing points and twist together to make the tortelloni.
Once all tortellonis are made, bring a pot of salted water to a boil. Drop pasta into water and allow the pasta to cook for 2 to 3 minutes. Fresh pasta cooks very quickly
Remove and drain the pasta. Place onto the plates and garnish with ricotta salata and toasted pumpkin seeds. 6 servings.