How to cook peas, from the tender to the starchy

Fast and slow cooking both give awesome results. Here's a saute with roasted mushrooms and a spicy stew for proof

Published May 15, 2010 12:20AM (EDT)

I guess I'm starting to get a bit of a reputation for my stance on peas, even if it's a muddled one. Let me clear the air here: I love them all the different ways. I love them raw when they're fresh and tender, just minutes-picked. I love them briefly sautéed, enough to heat them through but still keep their sugar sweetness and their irresistible pop. And, most controversially, I also love them with the hell cooked out of them, when they deform into wrinkle-skinned beads, but take on a wonderfully savory, creamy character.

But, in our nuance-free world of sound bites and split-second judgments, I've been painted for my love of army-green peas as a pea hater, a pea abuser. Hey, it's OK. It's understandable. Traumatic memories of canned peas can make us think that the only truly right way to treat peas is to make them as little like our school cafeterias as possible. And, I admit, the tenderness of my feelings toward the things can sometimes be overshadowed by the vehemence of my passion:

Screw giving peas a chance. I'm sick of those disappointing little bastards. Look at them. "Oh! Pretty! Green! I feel like I'm in a garden and rabbits are talking to squirrels and sharing cups of afternoon tea." And then you eat a spoonful and they're a mouthful of pebbles, hard and mealy and starchy. It's a punishment for daring to dream.

So I've pretty much given up on peas, with an ex-lover kind of bitterness. But when I'm feeling fair, I can see it's not their fault, really. The thing with peas is that they're really legumes. They just want to fit in with their cousins Chickpea, Black Eyed Pea, and Pigeon Pea.

It's that last part of my rant that holds the key to everything cooks need to know about peas. The truth is that peas are beans, but, because they're picked so young, they're tender and full of sugar when right off the plant. This is when they're amazing eaten raw, right out of your fist. This is when they taste like a present from Mother Earth, an apology for the winter wrapped up in a bow and delivered by a singing banana telegram lady.

But those sugars don't want to be sugars forever -- or even an hour, really. Literally within minutes of being plucked, the sugars in peas start to convert to more complex starches, and their bright flavor and tenderness begin to fade. No problem, though: This is where you cook them lightly -- a quick sauté, or a fast blanch in boiling water, just enough to warm them through -- and you can still savor their spring charms.

After a couple of days, though, those sugars will be all starchy, turning the pea mealy and hard. This is what drives me crazy: when the pea is past its youthful prime, but people still insist on serving them raw or barely cooked. Dude, sorry, but that's gnarly. But hey, my love doesn't fade alongside their tenderness. A days-old, mealy pea isn't a lost cause! That's where slow cooking comes into play. Like with their dried bean cousins, a nice, slow stewing makes those same starches creamy, smooth, and nutty, even buttery -- totally new characteristics, a maturity to be envied. Sure, you lose their bright green color when you cook them that long, but you know that old age and treachery always beat youth and beauty, right?

So, below: three ways to showcase peas, depending on just how fresh and young they really are. The key is to taste them. If they're good enough to eat raw, by all means, do so. If they're starting to get a little bit of starchiness, sautéing or quickly cooking them will be great. But if they're heading toward hard and mealy, you'll have to get ready to really cook them.

(Oh, and incidentally, I think frozen peas are fantastic; the peas get processed and frozen so quickly after harvest that they actually stay tender and sweet.)

For the freshest spring peas:

Petit pos au naturel


  1. Grow peas. When they are ready, pop them in your mouth. Or toss them with a pinch of salt, pepper, a tiny splash of vinegar, a glistening of the best olive oil you can get your hands on, and finely chopped mint leaves. If you really want to be fancy, eat with fresh ricotta cheese.

For still-tender peas:

Sautéed peas with roasted mushrooms

There are no measurements here, because how much of each ingredient to use just depends on how much you like that thing. But this combination of peas' springtime freshness and the deep, caramelized, savory flavor from the mushrooms is a life changer. To turn this simple dish into a satisfying meal, just add a little more olive oil, toss it all with hot pasta, and shave some parmesan or pecorino cheese on top.

Plain old supermarket white mushrooms, scrubbed clean
Extra virgin olive oil
Shallots, garlic or onions (whichever), chopped fine
Salt and pepper
Thyme, chopped (optional)

  1. Preheat your oven to 450.
  2. If your mushrooms are small, halve them; if they're medium-size, quarter them, and if large, cut into about what half of a small mushroom would look like. Toss them with olive oil (I like a generous tablespoon to every half-pound or so), and season well with salt and pepper. Scatter them in one layer on a baking sheet and roast, stirring and flipping them after about 10 minutes. They should be wilted and giving off much of their liquid. Keep roasting, listening for heavy sizzling, and pull them out when the liquid they've released is caramelized golden brown, about 10 minutes later. (The method is a whole lot like this.)
  3. While the mushrooms are cooking, set a sauté pan over low heat, get the bottom coated in a generous pool of olive oil (maybe, say, 1 tablespoon per cup of peas?) and add the shallot, garlic, whatever. Stir to coat, and give it a nudging stir every few minutes, but nothing will happen for a while. You want a nice, slow bath in the olive oil to infuse the flavor, but not brown the aromatics. Check on your mushrooms if you'd like.
  4. Taste one of the mushrooms; it should be fairly exploding with flavor, a super-concentrated version of itself, with a meaty, chewy texture. If all these things fit, scrape them, along with the dried juices if they're not burnt black, into a bowl with the thyme, if using.
  5. When the shallot/garlic/whatever starts sizzling and gets aromatic, turn the heat up to high. Stir it, and when there's just the first sign of browning on the shallot/garlic/whatever, add the peas. Stir, season well with salt and pepper, and sauté until they are hot all the way through, but still pop when you eat them. This should really only take a few minutes at most. Add to the mushrooms, toss, taste and adjust with salt and pepper if needed, and serve.

 For still-tender or firmer, older peas:
Cumin-ginger stewed peas

I kind of just want to say, "Hey, if you have great fresh peas that are a few days old, just boil some good chicken stock, dump them in, some salt, crack some pepper, and just simmer the peas in the stock until they're tender and earthy." But this recipe, too, will even better highlight the pea's ability to turn nutty, almost buttery, and absorb flavors as it smoothes out with a bit of a longer cooking time. Adapted from Camellia Panjabi's fantastic 50 Great Curries of India.

Serves 2-3 as a main course with rice; more as a side

4 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 medium onions, preferably not Vidalia or other very sweet varieties, cut into pea-size dice
2 cloves garlic, chopped fine
1-inch-square chunk of ginger, peeled, chopped fine
1 jalapeño, or a more intense pepper if you're macho, chopped fine
1 teaspoon whole cumin seeds
½ teaspoon coriander powder
2 teaspoon cumin powder
½ teaspoon red chile powder, or to taste
2 cups shelled peas, about 8 ounces by weight
1 small carrot, cut in pea-size dice
Salt, to taste
Water, or chicken stock if you're awesome

  1. Heat the oil in a heavy saucepan over medium heat until it flows like water, and add the onions. Stir to coat in the oil, get it to a healthy-sounding sizzle, and turn the heat to medium-low or low. I'm going to tell you now, this is not going to be your favorite part of cooking this dish, because you're going to have to stir the onions literally every other minute, if not more, until they get an even, dark, rusty brown. You have to keep stirring because if any of the onions brown too quickly, they'll burn by the time the rest get that dark color. This will take over 20 minutes. But you can start chopping and measuring the other stuff while you wait. Just don't forget the onions!
  2. When they're a beautiful rich brown, push the onions off to one side of the pan. Turn the heat back up to medium and add the ginger and garlic, stirring to coat them in oil. They'll get fragrant quickly; when they smell incredible, add the jalapeño or chili pepper and stir until you smell it, too.
  3. Now add the whole cumin seeds, toasting them until you smell them, then add the rest of the spice powders. Toast them in the oil for a moment, and then stir everything together. Keep stirring, which will help toast and bring out the spices; you'll feel the spices kind of "grip" the onions, turning the whole mess into a clump.
  4. When the spices have clumped up and darkened a shade, add 1 cup water and bring to a simmer. Give this gravy a taste -- the flavors will be great, but probably overly sweet. Season with salt, bringing it back into the savory spectrum, and simmer the gravy so the flavors come together for a few minutes.
  5. Add the peas and more water (or stock) to just barely cover. Bring to a boil, turn down to a simmer and cover, leaving a slight crack for steam to escape.
  6. Give them a stir, taste and adjust with salt after about 5 minutes. Add carrots. Cover and continue simmering.
  7. When I make this dish with tender peas, after about 10-12 minutes simmering they'll get exactly how I want them: starting to wrinkle, an ugly army green color, but with a smooth, creamy center that's deeply savory, absorbing all the gingery, spicy flavors. If your peas are a bit starchier, it can take quite a while longer to get to that stage. Just keep cooking, adding more water if necessary. But eventually, they'll get there, and your friends will be like, "What's that flavor, son? Butter?" And you'll say, "No, it's pea."

Serve on its own, with naan bread, or steamed basmati rice. (For a basmati recipe, click here, but feel free to leave out the cumin.)

By Francis Lam

Francis Lam is Features Editor at Gilt Taste, provides color commentary for the Cooking Channel show Food(ography), and tweets at @francis_lam.

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