Peas, a delicacy loved by everyone, have always had a special place in our culinary hearts. Arguably, this is no longer the case with the advent of frozen peas; these are almost as good, but not quite, so it’s hard to get excited over the small, but important, difference. Read more about Scandinavian peas.
When you do find the perfect fresh pea, however, that is the moment you realize the small difference, which makes the time-consuming task of shelling peas very much worthwhile. Fresh peas, simply prepared, have the most exquisite taste – maybe it’s the taste of human effort.
Peas are one of the most ancient crops that man has grown: 10,000 years is an almost incomprehensibly vast span of time. Cultivation began in the fertile crescent of the Middle East, as with so many other crops, including barley, wheat, lentils and chick peas. Dried peas are good travelers, and hardier than other legumes, and we know that peas had reached Scandinavia by the late Stone Age and have been grown here since.
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The first peas were meant for drying, and they are still part of northern tradition. Any pea can be dried and we have ancient cultivars that are not very good to eat as they are immature, bitter and mealy, as in most if the old world, but are perfect for drying. The oldest peas, found in tombs, are much the same as the field peas, meant for fodder, that we grow now. There is no evidence that peas were eaten fresh, but children probably ate fresh peas from the pod, just as they do now, scraping them from the shells with the teeth. Peas are perfect partners for wheat: when combined, they provide almost the complete protein, and man must have known then that you could survive on this, if meat was scarce. During the 17th century, pea cultivars were gradually improved, to become the large-podded and large-seeded shelling cultivars we grow today, they were, and are, a colossal improvement.
Appearance and taste
Dried peas last almost indefinitely. The only difference is that old peas, from pervious growing seasons, take longer to cook than more recently dried ones. Yellow split peas and green split peas are what you are after, in the Scandinavian context. Very similar versions can be found in Indian shops.
Fresh green peas are a different matter, their high sugar content is their reason of being, and this is converted into starch as they mature. Just 24 hours after picking, most of the sugar has gone. If you want fresh, sweet, tender green peas, you must grow your own or buy them at farmers’ markets, freshly picked.
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While our stock of recipes that feature peas is relatively small, the ones we have are simple, good and satisfying. Tender, fresh peas are best simply heated in butter until they turn frog-green, then seasoned with salt, pepper and garlic; in the right season, adding handfuls of chopped ramsons instead of clove garlic is very good. Peas are important in our so-called Russian salad (see below). Other peas can be fine for cooking, too. Dried peas are the basis of winter soups or are simply mashed with butter and thyme.
Related: Scandinavia Asparagus
The name of this recipe probably comes from the green peas, reddish, carrots and white asparagus and the Italians called it insalata russa. But names aside, it’s extremely popular and if homemade, it is delicious. We can eat with ham, tongue and other salat meals, or as an topping on open sandwiches.
1 bundle of green or white asparagus
4 new carrots
200g freshly shelled peas
100 ml cider vinegar
100 ml crème fraiche
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
A little sugar
1 handful of cress or nasturtium flowers
Snap off the woody bottom part of asparagus and cut the rest into 2cm pieces. If using white asparagus, they must be peeled. Peel the carrots and cut into small dice. Steam all the vegetables in the vinegar and 200ml boiling water for 2 minutes. Drain and cool.
Mix the crème fraiche, mustard and lemon juice to a smooth sauce and season to taste with the salt, pepper and sugar. Mix with the vegetables and decorate with the cress or nasturtiums before serving.
Scandinavian Peas, written by Tor Kjolberg