Spring has always meant peas throughout my life, both in Italy and in California. What has changed over time is my attitude, going from "oh, no!" to "yeah!"
The peas I knew in Italy were shelling peas — also known as English peas, garden peas and a few other names — small green globes that you pry out of plump pods. The scientific name is Pisum sativum, in which sativum means "cultivated."
Shelling peas was a task assigned to me as a child and I resented it because I did not like peas. Fortunately, in my mid-teens, my taste changed and from then on I gladly ate the peas my mother cooked. And shelling them for her was no longer a burden.
After I moved to California, the world of peas expanded to include first snow peas (Pisum sativum var. saccharatum) and then sugar snap peas (Pisum sativum var. macrocarpon), which share the characteristic of an edible pod, flat and plump, respectively.
Wondering about the origin of sugar snap peas, I read the following on the Johnny's Selected Seeds website: "Though there were commercial varieties as far back as the 1880s, [snap peas] disappeared from the seed trade, and by the 1970s, there were no snap peas being sold commercially." Enter pea breeders Calvin Lamborn and MC Parker of Twin Falls, Idaho, "who brought us the new variety 'Sugar Snap.' Upon introduction in 1979, this cross between a snow pea and a mutant shell pea ... earned immediate recognition as an All-America Selections winner."
Sugar snap peas remind us about seasonality. Now is the time to get them and feast on their sweet, crunchy pods. At the farmers market you can also find freshly harvested sweet onions, a welcome change after several months of storage onions. Add some pancetta and pine nuts or sliced almonds and you will have a side dish that comes together quickly and speaks of spring. Enjoy it now — summer is just around the corner.
Sugar Snap Peas with Pancetta and Sliced Almonds
Serves 3 to 4.
1 pound sugar snap peas
2 tablespoons pine nuts or 3 tablespoons sliced almonds
1 ½ tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 ounce pancetta, diced small (from a thick slice)
4 ounces fresh sweet onion, diced small
2 garlic cloves, minced
½ teaspoon fine sea salt, or to taste
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Cut the stem ends of the sugar snap peas and pull away the string on the concave side of the pods.
Toast the pine nuts or almonds in a dry skillet for 2-3 minutes, paying close attention so they don't burn. Set them aside.
Warm up a skillet or wok over medium heat. Add the oil and swirl it around to coat the pan.
Add the pancetta and cook it over medium-low heat for 2 minutes, stirring often. Add the onion and let it cook gently for 4 minutes, stirring often. Repeat with the garlic for 1 minute.
Turn up the heat to medium high and add the sugar snap peas. Stir well. Cook for 7 minutes, stirring often. Adjust the heat level so the peas sizzle gently.
When the snap peas are ready, sprinkled the salt and the black pepper and stir well. Finally add the pine nuts or almonds. Stir well and take the skillet off the heat.
Simona Carini also writes about her adventures in the kitchen on her blog www.pulcetta.com.