LOVE LETTERS ARE written every spring to the heart-gladdening properties of asparagus and rhubarb, perennial favorites as we reach the end of mud season and want nothing more than to wallow in an enormous bowl of crispy green anything. I’ve considered snap peas the unsung hero of the springtime palate for a decade or so — but that’s only because I didn’t register the feeding frenzy of their introduction when I was in elementary school.
Snap peas are a shockingly recent innovation, hybridized by Calvin Lamborn of the Gallatin Valley Seed Company in Twin Falls, Idaho. Introduced in 1979, his new pea was called “the greatest new vegetable in 50 years” — and that’s only scratching the surface. Sold as the Sugar Snap, its launch included coverage on “Good Morning America,” a photo shoot for People magazine, restaurant exclusives and bootlegged seeds; this varietal remains the gold standard.
Part delicately crisp snow pea and part sweet English pea, the hybrid is all about the thick, astonishingly sweet, entirely edible pod — no shelling, and because of that, almost no food waste. Its reliability, flavor and texture — and perhaps media attention — promptly earned the Sugar Snap a Gold award from All-American Selections, a nonprofit organization that tests new seeds for home gardeners. Five years later, Lamborn introduced the Sugar Ann, also an award-winner and a popular dwarf varietal with vines that stretch just 2 feet.
Today there are snap peas in purple, yellow, green and relatively stringless, as early or late-season varietals. All are abundant in Western Washington kitchen and market gardens, because our cool, damp springs are ideal. I’ve grown the Sugar Snap and Sugar Ann, but my favorite is Cascadia, developed by Jim Baggett of Oregon State University in the early 1990s; their extra-thick, extra-crisp, extra-sweet, extra-extra pods keep me growing it.
Toward the end of their season in my garden, I’ll switch to farmers market purchases (check the flower stalls; many sell snap peas). The year-round fresh supply with the gleeful mascot at the grocery store is touted as stringless, but their sweetness and crunch are nothing compared to the local snap peas, just as asparagus grown elsewhere is distinctly less asparagus-y than the peak-season Washington crop.
Most snap peas have definite strings on both sides of the pod that need removal, a minor annoyance that can be tended to by elementary school kids or other bored souls who wander into the kitchen when you need a sous chef. I’ve been known to string the so-called stringless varieties, too — perhaps 20 pods in a pound will have true end-to-end strings, but all have chewy strings on their ends, and I am a fussbudget.
You can steam, blanch or stir-fry snap peas, but they’re perfectly delicious raw, too, and haven’t we all been turning on the stove enough in the last year? This recipe involves just enough effort to merit being called a salad, and it’s where I turn when I’m getting a little bored with eating snaps out of hand. I’ve eaten a mountain of this by itself and called it dinner, and I’ve snacked on microbatches to use up a handful-sized harvest. With all its simplicity, it feels fancy enough to serve alongside pricier proteins, like halibut or a farmers market chicken. If the pods are too big to eat whole, go ahead and slice them in half or thirds before tossing them with the other ingredients — you’ll be glad you did when it’s time to eat.
Snap Peas with Mint and Feta
If you want to make this ahead of time, it’s best to add a little more olive oil and salt right before serving. Alternatively, string the snap peas ahead of time — once that’s done, the dish comes together in about 2 minutes.
1 pound snap peas
2 teaspoons olive oil
1/8 teaspoon kosher salt
½ teaspoon finely grated lemon zest
½ teaspoon sliced mint leaves
2 tablespoons crumbled feta
Wash and string snap peas, and pat dry. Place in a medium serving bowl. Drizzle on olive oil, and toss to coat. Sprinkle on salt, lemon zest, mint and feta, and toss to combine. Serve immediately.