I have written in the past about lab-created varieties of fruits and vegetables that I think are garbage (the Red Delicious apple), lackluster (the Tommy Atkins mango), or good but perhaps overrated (the Honeycrisp). Lest you think I am opposed to recent American advances in the competitive world of produce breeding, now is the time of year to gorge on one of my all-time favorite vegetables, created for a Gallatin, Montana-based company and first released in 1979: the sugar snap pea, which is showing up in farmers markets, meaning that winter is finally over.
Sugar snap peas were first bred by Dr. Calvin Lamborn and Dr. M.C. Parker in a quest to solve a problem associated with the ancient Chinese snow pea, the flat variety you often find in takeout American Chinese food (and also from-China Chinese food, and also other food; it’s a good pea). The snow pea is unusual for having an edible pod that’s basically bereft of insoluble fiber, making it very easy and delicious to digest. But the snow pea can be tricky to grow, twisting and buckling and popping when it gets to even a moderate size.
Lamborn was hired by the Gallatin Valley Seed Company as a breeder, and Parker introduced him to a bizarre fluke mutation he’d found a decade and a half earlier. Shelling peas, meaning a pea with an inedible, fibrous pod, are by far the most common variety of pea in the world — all our frozen peas come from this sort of pea. Parker’s weirdo mutant shell pea had a particularly tight pod, which basically never burst or twisted, and the two cross-bred the Chinese snow pea with the mutant pea, thinking they might come up with a snow pea that doesn’t have the physical problems. Instead what they got was the sugar snap pea: a pea with a thick-walled, edible pod; a fresh, herbal flavor; and an incredibly high sugar content.
The first year the sugar snap pea was available, it was an immediate smash hit. None other than James Beard, the grandfather of modern American cuisine, raved about it in the New York Post, calling it “nothing short of sensational.” He was correct; the sugar snap makes a good argument for every single possible thing involved in its creation. Are seed conglomerates good? Yes, look at the sugar snap pea. Is American produce good? Yes, look at the sugar snap pea. Is Montana a cool state? Hell yes, look at the sugar snap pea.
These days, there are dozens of varieties of sugar snaps, all variations of the original. The name “sugar snap” is mostly used to denote a firm, round, edible-pod pea with an elevated level of sweetness. It’s pretty rare that you can ever figure out the exact provenance of any particular sugar snap, so before you buy, eat one and make sure that they taste right. The sugar snap pea is, ideally, a bit paler than you would expect from a pea, totally firm and crisp and taut in texture, and the stem is still attached. They should be no more than three or four inches long, with absolutely no wrinkling at all. And they should be eaten with reckless abandon whenever they are found; Lamborn even told the Los Angeles Times that he saw the sugar snap as an ideal gardener’s vegetable, meaning the gardener will have no option but to munch on them while gardening because they are so irresistible.
Even more than the other delicate fruits of springtime, like the asparagus and the fiddlehead, the sugar snap pea is so fresh, so light, and so vibrant when raw that it should very literally be a crime to expose them to heat for any significant length of time. Do NOT roast, boil, steam, or blanch the sugar snap. Drs. Lamborn and Parker are American heroes and I am totally guessing, but basically completely positive, that they would be deeply offended by such a thing. If you must cook them, expose them to a lot of dry heat for a very very short time. Your key tools for extreme heat are the wok and the grill, both avenues for getting char and caramelization within a minute or two.
But I would encourage you also to eat them raw whenever possible. They pair especially well with herbs and light white cheeses (ricotta, mozzarella, and chevre are classics for a reason), but I find they don’t need to go with Italian flavors. They taste great with ginger, for example, and their sweetness balances well with spice. Their mother, after all, is the Chinese snow pea, so don’t be afraid to look for flavors outside Western Europe.
I have not included a recipe for this, because I haven’t tried it, but I suspect that a pretty spectacular ice cream could be made out of sugar snap peas. There’s a recipe over here — please, if you try it, let me know.
Sugar Snap Pea and Beet Panzanella Salad With Ginger Vinaigrette
Shopping list: Sugar snap peas, Swiss chard, red beets, baguette, ginger (whole but frozen), rice wine vinegar, olive oil, brown sugar, scallions, pumpkin seeds
Trim beets of stem and leaves, if they’re there, and wrap individually in aluminum foil. Roast in the oven at 350 degrees F until a thin knife pierces all the way through with no resistance. Allow to cool and peel — while wearing gloves, if you want, since they will stain your hands for a day or so — then cut into cubes about an inch by an inch by an inch. Heat a dry cast iron pan on the stove over medium heat and when hot, toss in a handful of pumpkin seeds and allow to toast until fragrant. Remove and let cool.
Trim sugar snap peas of their stems and slice width-wise into two or three pieces per pea. Toss into a big bowl along with the beets. Cut out the stem of Swiss chard and reserve (it’s very good to pickle!) and chop up the leaves into small pieces. Toss those into the bowl too. Add in the pumpkin seeds and a few chopped scallions.
Make your vinaigrette: take a knob of frozen ginger and grate with a microplane into a glass container with a lid (like a tupperware or jar). Add in some rice wine vinegar, some olive oil, some salt and pepper, and some brown sugar, close the lid of the container and shake thoroughly to combine.
Cut the baguette into cubes about the same size as the beets. Toss into the bowl, pour on the vinaigrette, and serve immediately. The bread does not keep, but you can make the salad ahead of time and add the bread at the last second if you want.
Grilled Sugar Snap Peas With Thai Dressing
Shopping list: Sugar snap peas, wooden skewers, rice wine vinegar, sambal oelek, baby dried shrimp (optional), brown sugar, fish sauce, olive oil, cilantro, peanuts
Grilling sugar snaps is easier than you’d think: First, soak the skewers in water for a few minutes so they don’t catch on fire. Then lay out two skewers per kabob: you want one skewer to go through the top, near where the stem attached, and one near the bottom, the opposite end of the pea, making it kind of a flat paddle shape. Brush with olive oil and place on the grill for or a minute or two on each side until charred but still crisp.
For the sauce, mix vinegar, sambal, brown sugar, and fish sauce in a container. If you can find baby dried shrimp, do this all in a mortar and pestle and smash it instead of mixing it. If you can’t find any, no big deal, just mix up the dressing the way you would any other. Serve in a dish, pour the dressing on top, and top with chopped peanuts and fresh cilantro.
Sugar Snap Salad With Pickled Radish, Mint, And Feta
Shopping list: Sugar snap peas, radishes, fresh mint, feta, white vinegar, white sugar, Israeli couscous, lemon, olive oil
This is kind of a classic recipe but it’s a classic for a reason; it is a very good use of spring produce. First quick-pickle your radishes. Get a pot of vinegar and sugar on the stove in a ratio of about 2:1, and bring it to a boil. Slice radishes thinly (a mandoline is useful for this) and put in a glass container with a lid. Pour the hot liquid over the radishes, cover, and allow to cool. The longer in advance you can do this, the better.
Cook Israeli couscous according to package directions. (It’s just pasta.) Allow to cool.
Slice sugar snaps into rounds about five millimeters thick. Toss in a bowl with chopped mint, couscous, radishes, feta, a squeeze of lemon and a lot of olive oil. Salt and pepper to taste.
Sugar snap peas taste like spring and early summer; it seems impossible that any vegetable can be that sweet, that crisp, that delicious without any cooking at all. I’m eating some right now. Just a bag of them next to me, emptying slowly.
Photo by Alice Henneman