Traditional English peas in the pod are one of the most vexing vegetables around. When they're good, they are unbelievably, head-shakingly, close-your-eyes-in-wonder good. But the other 98% of the time, they're just plain dull.
Thank goodness for sugar snaps.
Sugar snaps are the kings of the edible-pod peas, a class that also includes the flat snow peas. Sugar snaps are sweeter, crunchier and have more pea flavor.
They're so good you might think they must be some rare heirloom variety, but in fact they stem from some crosses made in the 1970s by a plant breeder named Calvin Lamborn.
The trick to cooking with sugar snaps is to do it as little as possible. The problem is they're so delicious raw -- so bursting with that sweet green vitality -- that it seems like cooking could only diminish them.
And so I usually keep things very simple: blanch them briefly to brighten the color, then dress them lightly with a little butter and some coarse salt; or maybe I'd combine them with herbal mayonnaise and quickly cooked shrimp for a spring salad, or something like that.
But, of course, they are good cooked, too — as long as you don't overdo it. Here's a dozen recipes to get you started.
Many varieties of sugar snaps have a tough fibrous string that runs the length of the pea that should be removed before cooking. Fold back the stem and pull -- the string will unzip quite easily. Check carefully; some varieties have strings on both sides (just repeat the stem operation from the opposite end).
When you do find great English peas, here's the recipe for my favorite way to eat them, learned from my old friend, cookbook writer Sylvia Thompson: Simmer the peas in their pods in a skillet with about 1 inch of water and a nice chunk of butter. Cook them just until the pods glow and begin to soften, about three minutes. Drain, sprinkle generously with coarse salt and then eat them by popping the whole pod in your mouth and pulling it out between your teeth. You get a scraping of slightly bitter green from the pod and then the explosion of sweet green flavor from the peas themselves.
Do this only with close friends: You'll wind up with mouths smeared with butter and mounds of discarded pea hulls.
How to choose: Look for pods that are firm and crisp. They shouldn't bend at all but should snap. The color in general should be a saturated pale green. Some peas will show a little white scarring on the pod; that's not a problem.
How to store: Sugar snaps hold their sweetness well enough that you can refrigerate them in a tightly sealed plastic bag. They'll last four or five days — an eternity compared with English peas.