Pease porridge hot, pease porridge cold, pease porridge in the pot, nine days old. Some like it hot, some like it cold, some like it in the pot, nine days old.
That old Mother Goose rhyme has been passed down through the centuries. The meaning is not particularly clear to 21st Century children, but the rhyme has a ring to it that tickles the ear so it remains. Many adults remember it as kids on the playground. It provided a chant used while jumping rope.
Young peasant children of 16th Century England probably also liked the singsong rhythm of the ditty, but it would have carried another meaning to them. Their frequent meals of pease (pea) porridge served hot, cold and in-between day after day may have prompted such a verse.
Pease porridge actually evolved from pease pottage, a very thick porridge made of dried peas that was served with highly salted bacon. The bacon and salt provided the flavor for this dish. Meat was too expensive for most peasants so the salt pork and pea combination would have been the substitute. The meals were based on the pease porridge with an abundance of whatever vegetables they could gather.
A kettle over the fireplace held the porridge that was served for meals throughout the day. There was no refrigeration, but no one would want to throw out leftovers. That would be unheard of waste with little to replace it. The mixture would stay in the pot and the fire would die down at night. The morning porridge was cold but ready. Each day the fire was rekindled and more peas and vegetables would be added to the kettle. Indeed, portions of the original ingredients in the kettle could have been nine days old. The cooking and serving of this mealtime staple would be enough to horrify modernday mothers, not to mention health officials.
The nursery rhyme goes back for centuries but using peas as food dates back millennia. The vegetable would have been a staple in medieval Europe.
It is not hard to understand this vegetable’s popularity in ages past. It dries and stores well, so it made a great choice to save for winter eating. By the Middle Ages, peas were stored, dried, used for Lenten eating and as a hedge against food shortage and famine. Dried peas accompanied the English colonists to America and were among the first crops they planted in the New World. Although they had historically used them mostly as a dried and stored vegetable, late in the 17th Century, colonists began to regularly eat fresh peas.
In Middle English, peas were known as pease. As the English language evolved, the “s” sound was interpreted as plural, so the singular “pea” came into common usage.
Edible peas include all varieties that can be eaten with or without shelling. Some common varieties include English peas, snow peas, sugar peas and snap peas. All types are tender and relatively sweet when eaten fresh.
English, or shelling peas, are the ones that roll around on your plate trying to escape your fork. Gardeners allow them to ripen fully in the pod. When the pods are plump, they are opened and the peas removed to cook without the pod.
Snow peas are flat with undeveloped seeds and the pods are either cooked or quickly stir-fried. Many snow pea varieties are available.
Snap peas fall somewhere between snow peas and shelling peas. They are harvested when the seeds are immature or after the seeds develop. The pod is crisp and tender so it can be eaten along with the seeds in either case.
Peas are a tasty vegetable. They have lost the luster the French ladies of the 1600s afforded them and are common enough that most people think of them with a ho-hum attitude. They are not in vogue, and certainly don’t need to be, but they should get more esteem than they do. Frankly, as Rodney Dangerfield would say, peas don’t get no respect on the dinner plate.
Peas are rich in nutrients, vitamins and minerals, like phosphorus, potassium and vitamin A, which aids in the growth of new cells. Peas are rich in vitamin B (thiamin), which promotes a healthy nervous system, and C, which helps fight infection and contributes to tissue repair and general health.
They are high in complex carbohydrates, but fortunately rather low in calories. One cup of snap peas contains about 45 calories. They also contain nutritious amounts of fiber, folic acid, amino acids and protein. The amino acids, broken down from protein during digestion, are the building blocks of the body, and folic acid contributes to cell growth and the formation of red blood cells as well as to digestion and the nervous system.
Peas taste sweetest fresh, but they also freeze well for winter storage. It is possible to shell and dry peas for use in soups, but they lose the quality of their texture.
To freeze English peas, shell them as soon as you pick them and then blanch the peas for one to two minutes in boiling water, drain and dip in ice water to stop the cooking process. Drain again and store in plastic bags or containers in the freezer.
You can also blanch them in the pods and shell easily by grasping one end of the pod and sliding your fingers along the length of the pod pushing the peas out the other end. Consume frozen peas within six to seven months.
Wash snow and snap peas and remove any strings if necessary. Then blanch and freeze in the pods.
Peas don’t have to huddle on the plate as a boring and often ignored side dish. Like other vegetables, peas begin to lose their nutritive value when cooked in water, so steam or stir-fry them for optimum nutrition. They can be boiled, but they also lend themselves to steaming, stir-frying or sautéing, braising, stewing, microwaving or eating raw.
They are a good addition to macaroni salads to add color and are often added to casseroles for the same purpose. Creamed peas and new potatoes is a classic dish that celebrates these two vegetables that are traditionally planted on St. Patrick’s Day.
Creamed Peas and New Potatoes
Scrub small new potatoes with a brush to clean and partially remove the tender skin. Boil in salted water until tender. Boil peas until barely tender. Make a medium white sauce, add peas and new potatoes and serve.
(makes 12 servings)
1 medium head of lettuce, shredded or torn into small pieces
8 ounces baby spinach, washed and trimmed
1/2 cup sliced green onions
1 cup thinly sliced celery
1 (8-ounce) can sliced water chestnuts, drained
1 (10-ounce) package frozen peas
2 cups mayonnaise
2 teaspoons sugar
1/2 cup grated parmesan cheese 1 teaspoon seasoned salt 1 teaspoon garlic powder (optional) 3 eggs, hard boiled and chopped 3/4 pound bacon, fried and crumbled 2 medium tomatoes, cut in wedges Mix lettuce and spinach together in a 4 quart glass serving bowl. Layer green onions, celery, water chestnuts and uncooked peas on top. Spread mayonnaise over the top. Combine sugar, Parmesan cheese, seasoned salt and garlic powder if desired. Sprinkle over mayonnaise. Just before serving sprinkle with eggs and bacon. Garnish with tomato wedges. This salad makes an attractive layered effect in a clear-glass bowl. Put a layer of cooked shrimp or chicken somewhere in the middle to make this into a main dish salad.
Saffron Rice with Peas
(makes 8 servings)
1/4 cup butter
1 small onion, finely chopped
2 cups uncooked long-grain white rice
1 cup apple juice
3 cups chicken broth
1/4 teaspoon saffron thread
1/2 cup freshly grated parmesan cheese
1 10-ounce package frozen baby peas, thawed
Melt butter in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add onion and sauté until glazed but not browned, two to three minutes. Add rice. Toss with a fork until rice is glazed. Add juice and 2 1/2 cups broth. Cover and reduce heat. Simmer until rice is tender and broth is absorbed, about 20 minutes. In a small bowl or cup, blend saffron with remaining broth. Stir broth, cheese and peas into rice mixture. Cover and remove from heat and let stand for five to 10 minutes. Serve immediately.