Saturday, August 20, 2011

Summer peas

  On these late summer afternoons we've been retreating to the house to shell peas.  We each take a bowl, even the kids, and start working on the pile in the middle of the table.  A few summers ago we visited a neighbor with a homemade sheller; in a half hour his machine shelled out the couple bushels we'd brought along.  We haven't been able to talk him into making a similar sheller for us.  But an excuse to sit down in front of the fan (and even watch a movie!) when it's hot outside isn't so bad.  Then come winter, we'll pull peas out of the freezer or pour them out of a can and enjoy the summer's work.
  I'd never had "peas" growing up.  I'm not even sure the related dry black-eyed pea made it on our table.  Soon after moving to North Carolina, though, Eric's great aunt and uncle offered me a big bowl of little green peas grown in their garden.  I was hooked.  His great Uncle Nick sent us home with seed and we've been growing them since, saving seed every year to keep the family seed going.
  But we haven't stopped there.  We've become pea collectors, always curious and ready to try another variety.  There is an incredible number of varieties with each corner of the South having a favorite pea and many families having seed handed down from generation to generation.  This year we're growing pink-eye purple hulls, strawberry crowders, red rippers, colossals, and “Nick's peas.”  (“Crowders,” by the way, are so called because they're closer together in the pod than other field peas.)
  Of course one problem with growing so much variety is that it complicates seed saving.  Peas need one or two hundred feet of isolation distance to come true. To meet this challenge we separate varieties we want to save seed from in separate gardens and harvest enough seed for multiple years.  Saving pea seed is simple.  Just let the pods go until they are completely dry on the plant.  Then on a hot dry day harvest them into a feed sack and thresh with a baseball bat like we did with the dry beans.  Put them in a glass jar and freeze them to make sure any bugs are dead.  If there's room, just keep the jar in the freezer.
  In the garden, peas are space hogs.  It takes a large area to grow enough to have some to put up.  That said, we think of our pea plantings as cover crops.  They are legumes that add nitrogen to the soil.  And fairly quickly, they vine to completely cover the soil surface and outcompete weeds.  So it's a cover crop that's edible and profitable to grow.  Peas are also fairly quick, 60-90 days depending on the variety.  They can be planted any time from early May to late July.  There are hardly any other crops that can be planted mid-summer and withstand the heat and dry spells and mature a crop before it gets too cold like peas will.  They have few pests and diseases aren't a problem.
  Harvesting the peas can be easy or challenging.  Some varieties have peas that stick straight up above the canopy while others hide under the leaves.  The easiest to harvest are ones that have a colored hull when they are ready, like pink eye purple hulls.  There is actually good debate about when a pea is ready to harvest.  Some folks like them in the "green" stage for a fresh vegetable taste.  These are not quite so easy to shell as when the pea has just started to dry down a little.  We usually pick a bit at both stages and if there are enough peas, separate them out as we shell.
  Peas are simple to prepare.  Simply boil in salt water (or with some pork product) until soft.  Then drain and add some butter.  We also enjoy them cold in a summer salad mixed with corn, peppers, tomatoes and onions.  They are great in soups, too.
  The pea season should last as long as it stays warm.  If you happen to stop by the farm some hot afternoon, we'll find an extra bowl for you.

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