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An ancient vegetable is finding legions of new fans as cooks rediscover the joy of peas.Joy? Peas? Don’t be hasty and dismiss the pairing. Yes, most of us grew up with frozen, canned or dried split peas. Shelling peas by hand, it seemed, was just too much work.But the flavor of fresh peas rewards those who take on that time-consuming chore. And some peas need no shelling they’re eaten pod and all.An early spring staple for millennia, peas are at their best and sweetest just plucked from the vine. Ask any gardener who grows peas; they often get munched before they reach the kitchen. The reason: Peas’ sugar content is highest the moment they’re picked. Once off the vine, that sugar rapidly converts to starch.The best time to enjoy fresh peas is now, as a new crop is hitting stores, farmers markets and backyard gardens. Peas also complement other spring vegetables such as asparagus, spinach and, of course, carrots.Humanity’s connection to peas is practically in our DNA. Archeologists have traced their consumption almost 8,000 years to Syria, Turkey and Jordan, where peas grew wild. Ancient Egyptians ate peas as early as 4800 B.C. Peas also have thousands of years of culinary history in India, Pakistan and southern parts of Russia.Meanwhile, edible pod peas snow peas became a staple throughout Asia.By the Middle Ages, dried peas were a major source of protein for most of Europe. It wasn’t until the 17th and 18th centuries that the Italians, French and English fell in love with immature, fresh green peas.Known as piselli novelli and with their seeds imported from Genoa, these early spring peas became the rage of the court of France’s Louis XIV. Ladies smuggled them up to their bedrooms and ate raw peas like candy. The French called it “pea madness.”The English called it inspiration, developing new varieties known as English or garden peas meant to be eaten as fresh as possible. The colonists brought them to America. According to his garden records, Thomas Jefferson grew at least 30 different cultivars of peas.All these peas contribute to a global menu of possibilities. Peas mixed with mint taste very French or Turkish, depending on the other ingredients. A pea salad with cheese and mayonnaise makes for a proper British picnic. In Spain, peas combine with ham for classic tapas. Pea soup variations are common from Sweden to Iran. (And fresh pea soup seems a world away from its split pea cousins.)In his “The Best Recipes in the World” (Clarkson Potter, $32.50, 768 pages), the New York Times’ Mark Bittman uses peas as part of the batter in the Japanese savory pancakes called okonomiyaki, Middle Eastern rice pilaf, Chinese stir-fry (with shrimp and ginger), Italian soups and pastas (with ham and baby artichokes), filling for Indian samosas and Vietnamese stir-fry with nam pla.Obviously, peas get around. But not always all the way to the kitchen.———Spring green peas fall into three groups.Shelled or English peas:These are plucked from their pods, which tend to be tough and fibrous. Look for firm peas of uniform size and color, but not too big. Larger peas tend to be older and tougher. The pods should be crisp and shiny. One pound of peas in their pods yields 1 to 11/4 cups of shelled peas.Snow or Asian peas:Not as sweet as their seedy counterparts, these have flat pods with tiny, immature peas. They’re made to eat whole or sliced diagonally in half. Look for firm, crisp pods not limp.Sugar snap peas:They’re also known as mange-tout (”eat all”). A recent hybrid, these peas blend the best of both snow and English varieties. The pods are edible, and the peas inside are nice, round and sweet. Look for firm, crisp, vivid-green pods that “snap.” These are best when lightly steamed for five minutes or stir-fried.Nutrition facts:One cup of shelled green peas has 110 calories; one cup of snow peas, only 35 calories. Sugar snap peas have about 45 to 55 calories per cup, depending on the maturity of the peas inside the edible pods. All three are high in vitamin C, but shelled peas also offer a lot of vitamin A.———KEEMA TURKEY WITH PEAS AND MINTPrep time: 6 minutesCook time: 19 minutesServes 4Think of keema as the sloppy Joe of India.INGREDIENTS2 tablespoons canola oil1 large yellow onion, diced2 cloves garlic, minced1 tablespoon grated fresh ginger1 pound lean ground turkey1 tablespoon garam masala1 teaspoon turmeric2 tablespoons tomato paste1/2 cup water1 cup fresh (or thawed frozen) peas1/4 cup plain Greek-style yogurtSalt, to taste2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro1/2 tablespoon chopped fresh mint4 large naan or other flatbreads, warmedINSTRUCTIONSIn a large skillet over medium-high, heat the oil. Add the onion and garlic, then saute for 5 minutes. Add the ginger and cook for another minute.Add the turkey and cook until the meat starts to brown, about 7 to 8 minutes. Add the garam masala and turmeric, then saute for another minute. Add the tomato paste and water and heat, stirring to mix, for another minute. Add the peas, then cover and cook for 3 minutes.Uncover the pan, then stir in the yogurt. Season with salt, then stir in the cilantro and mint. Serve with naan.Per serving: 477 calories; 163 calories from fat (34 percent of total calories); 18 g fat (4 g sat.; 0 g trans); 65 mg cholesterol; 47 g carb.; 32 g protein; 7 g fiber; 607 mg sodium.———GNOCCHI WITH LOBSTER AND PEAS ... OR NOTPrep time: 5 minutesCook time: 15 minutesServes 4If lobster isn’t in your budget, frozen cooked shrimp or canned lump crabmeat are fine, fast and more affordable alternatives.INGREDIENTS1 tablespoon olive oil1 medium yellow onion, thinly sliced1 clove garlic, minced1/2 teaspoon thyme1 cup fresh or frozen peasOne 16-ounce package gnocchi or other pasta1cup creme franche or ricotta cheese1/2 teaspoon hot sauce (more or less to taste)1 1/2 cups cooked lobster, shrimp or lump crabmeat (about two 1-poundlobsters, meat from the claws, tails and knuckles)Salt and ground black pepper, to tasteINSTRUCTIONSIn a large skillet over medium-high, heat the olive oil. Add the onion, garlic and thyme, then saute until the onion is soft, about 4 minutes. Add the peas, stir well, then cover the skillet and reduce heat to low.Meanwhile, bring a large saucepan of salted water to a boil. Add the gnocchi and cook according to package directions. Drain the gnocchi and set aside.Uncover the skillet and increase the heat to medium-high. Add the creme franche or ricotta and hot sauce, tossing well until the dairy melts into a smooth sauce. Stir in the lobster or other seafood and heat until warmed through. Season with salt and pepper.Add the gnocchi to the seafood mixture and toss gently to coat. Serve immediately.Per serving using potato gnocchi, ricotta cheese and lobster: 392 cal.; 23 g pro.; 32 g carb.; 19 g fat (13 sat., 5 monounsat., 1 polyunsat.); 91 mg chol.; 723 mg sod.; 4 g fiber; 4 g sugar; 44 percent calories from fat.———CAPRI LEMON PASTA WITH PEAS, FAVA BEANS AND ASPARAGUSPrep time: 15 minutesCook time: 10 minutesServes 4 to 6This lemony pasta with peas and other fresh spring vegetables is from Maria Elia’s “The Modern Vegetarian” (Kyle, $24.95, 160 pages).INGREDIENTS1 1/4 cups heavy creamJuice and zest of 2 lemons1 bunch asparagus, ends trimmed, cut into 1-inch pieces1 pound fresh fava beans, shelled (or 51/2 ounces frozen fava beans or shelled edamame)One 14-ounce package fresh pasta (linguine, tagliatelle or spaghetti)1 pound fresh peas, shelled (or 51/2 ounces frozen)4 tablespoons mascarpone1 cup grated Parmesan cheeseSmall bunch fresh basil, leaves tornSalt and pepper, to tasteINSTRUCTIONSBring a large pot of salted water to a boil.Meanwhile, in a small saucepan over medium-low, combine cream and lemon zest. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer for 3 minutes.Once water has boiled, add asparagus, fava beans, pasta and peas. Cook for 3 minutes, or until the pasta is al dente. Reserve 1/4 cup of the pasta cooking water, then drain the pasta and vegetables.Pour warmed cream and lemon zest into the pasta cooking pot. Add lemon juice, mascarpone and reserved pasta cooking water.Return to a boil, then add pasta and vegetables. Add the Parmesan, basil, salt and pepper. Toss well.Per serving based on 6 servings: 551 cal.; 20 g pro.; 54 g carb.; 29 g fat (18 sat., 7 monounsat., 2 polyunsat., 2 other); 93 mg chol.; 517 mg sod.; 6 g fiber; 8 g sugar; 47 percent calories from fat.———FRESH PEA SOUP WITH TARRAGONPrep time: 25 minutesCook time: 40 minutesServes 6 to 8Romaine lettuce intensifies the bright green color of this soup, inspired by California wine country. Garnish with a swirl of sour cream. The fresh tarragon (don’t use dried) gives an interesting licorice twist. If you don’t like tarragon (or don’t have that herb available), the recipe still tastes great without it.From “From the Earth to the Table” by John Ash (Dutton, 1995)INGREDIENTS2 tablespoons unsalted butter1 cup chopped onions1 cup chopped leeks, both white and tender green parts1/2 cup chopped celery1/4 cup chopped carrot3-1/2 cups vegetable or chicken stock1/2 cup dry white wine4 cups shelled fresh peas1 cup loosely packed fresh tarragon leaves3 cups loosely packed and finely sliced romaine or other green lettuceKosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to tasteINSTRUCTIONSIn a large saucepan, melt the butter. Add onions, leeks, celery and carrot. Saute until soft but not browned.Add stock and wine. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer 10 minutes.Add the peas and tarragon; simmer for 5 minutes more or until peas are soft. Add the lettuce and simmer until the lettuce is just wilted and tender, about 2 minutes.Transfer soup to a blender or food processor (in batches if necessary) and puree until smooth. Strain and return soup to pan. Bring back to simmer and season to taste with salt and pepper.Per serving based on 8 servings: 129 cal.; 6 g pro.; 17 g carb.; 3 g fat (2 sat., 1 monounsat., 0 polyunsat.); 8 mg chol.; 515 mg sod.; 3 g fiber; 3 g sugar; 25 percent calories from fat.

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