Fresh Ideas: Sweet peas

Photo provided by Helana Brigman  --  Get the kids to help make Seared Sugar Snap Peas.
Photo provided by Helana Brigman -- Get the kids to help make Seared Sugar Snap Peas.

by Helana Brigman

Special to Food

Growing up, my mother had nicknames for my twin sister and me. Jokingly, she told us apart by dubbing my sister “Carbo Kid” and me, “Sweet Pea.”

These terms of endearment stick with us today, and if you eat dinner at my sister’s house, she’ll serve you meat and potatoes every time. But, have dinner at mine and I’ll make you peas.

I realize that everyone believes their mother’s cooking is the best, but in the case of vegetables, I think this is actually true. Compared to other kids’ moms, mine emphasized preparing vegetables properly. Because she had formal culinary training, she understood the four elements of vegetable cookery: texture, flavor, color and nutrition.

And you should, too.

Since we all want kids to eat their vegetables, it’s important to think about such qualities before you begin cooking. Understanding how heat and time affect your foods can give you a new appreciation for how cooked vegetables should look and taste.

Although kids often get a bad rap for not eating their broccoli, I would argue that their young taste buds are miniature experts in flavor. It’s not that children don’t like to eat green vegetables, but that they don’t like mushy, lifeless, bland foods. The fact that these foods are green certainly doesn’t help.

To remedy these issues, let’s consider sugar snap peas. Preserve fresh flavors and nutrients by aiming to keep the vegetables green. They should be cooked quickly and at a high temperature.

In this recipe for Seared Sugar Snap Peas, I call for a hot pan and peanut oil before you add the peas, and when you do, aim to lightly “sear” both sides of the pod. Your dish will come together quickly and retain the peas’ bright green color and fresh flavors.

Here are four of the rules my mother taught me about cooking green vegetables such as peas:

Color — Peas should be bright green at the time of purchase and retain their vibrant hue after preparation. Overcooked greens dull quickly, turning olive-green in color.

Texture — As with pasta, al dente is the rule of thumb here. Long cooking times take the life out of a vegetable, and you want green vegetables like peas, asparagus and broccoli to be tender, but still possess some crunch. With snap peas, this trick is easy — do they still have a little “snap” after cooking?

Flavor — Properly cooked peas will keep their subtle sweetness, but if you find they’ve lost life while sitting in the fridge (which promotes sugars turning into starch), replace lost sweetness with a dash of sugar while cooking.

Nutrition — Although some nutrient loss is unavoidable during food preparation, you can preserve vitamins and minerals by cooking peas uncovered and in the shortest amount of time possible. Typically, I avoid large amounts of unnecessary liquids and pot lids. Liquids promote vitamin leaching while uncovered cooking allows damaging plant acids to escape and keeps in fiber.

Since one of the best parts of summer can be cooking with our families, let’s take a few minutes to show kids the little pleasures found in peas. Snapping the stems, removing the strings, and sprinkling the final dish with coarse salt are just some of the ways my own mother taught me about vegetable cookery.

Who knows, perhaps they’ll even like eating their vegetables.

Helana Brigman is a food writer, photographer and cookbook author. She can be reached with daily recipes at http://clearlydeliciousfoodblog.com or via email at hbrigm1@tigers.lsu.edu.