The Folklore. As possibly one of the first takeout foods, hot pea soup was sold by street vendors in ancient Athens. In the 1800s, Austrian monk Gregor Mendel famously studied and cross-bred pea plants in the garden of his monastery. It was there the modern science of genetics was born.
The Facts. Like beans and lentils, peas are legumes. Green peas (Pisum sativum), are shelled from inedible pods, while snap peas and snow peas have edible pods. Dried peas (Pisum arvense) come from mature field peas, the variety grown for drying. Black-eyed peas are a whole different plant.
As legumes, peas are higher in protein than the average side dish?half a cup of dried peas has more protein than an egg. Green peas, snap peas and snow peas are picked when less mature, so have less protein, about half that. Still impressive.
Green peas are a leading source of lutein and zeaxanthin, phytonutrients that protect eyes against free radical damage. They are also a good source of vitamin K, though not nearly as good as dark leafy greens, so you don’t need to adjust your dosage of an anti-coagulant like Coumadin. Dried peas, in contrast, are rich in potassium. Both green and dried peas provide ample folate, thiamin, manganese and fiber (dried has twice that of green).
The Findings. Emerging research on vitamin K, a key player in blood clotting, shows it also can boost bone mass and help prevent fractures by aiding the body in making more of the active form of osteocalcin, a bone-building protein. Peas? protein content is of potential help to the prevention of sarcopenia, the age-related loss of muscle. People with high intakes of lutein and zeaxanthin, have less risk of age-related macular degeneration, a leading cause of blindness in people age 65 and up.
The Finer Points. Green peas are mostly sold frozen or canned; they?re harder to find fresh. But fresh snow peas and sugar snap peas are readily available. Store in a plastic bag in the refrigerator; they?ll keep for up to a week. Whole dried peas require soaking for several hours before cooking, but split peas do not. (Split peas are simply dried peas that have been mechanically split along a natural seam.)
Add green peas to salads, casseroles and stir-frys for flavor and vibrant color. Or puree thawed frozen peas in a blender along with fresh-chopped herbs for a creamy dip. Cooked, pureed peas make the ideal thickener for soup or stew.