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Field peas refer to the varieties of the legume species Pisum sativum, an annual cool season plant usually sown in late spring or early fall that is native to Southwest Asia. These pea varieties were among the first crops grown by man and produce vibrant edible green pods that can be split open to reveal several round peas. These peas are cultivated around the world in countries such as Ethiopia, China, India, Canada and Russia and historically have been an important cash crop in certain regions of the United States like the Midwest. The majority of commercially produced field peas is for the dry pea market or sold as seed to gardeners. Common varieties include the varieties of snow peas, sugar or snap peas and garden peas.
Most field pea varieties are plants with long and delicate vining stems that grow to between 2 and 4 feet (0.6 and 1.2 meters) tall and are not self supporting. It is common for the plant’s delicate tendrils to coil around other plants, branches, fences and trellises for support. Leaves are generally green and round with some white and the small flowers from which the pea pods grow are commonly white or purple. The pea pods grow to approximately 3 inches (7.5 centimeters) long and contain between four and nine peas. Pea pods are often harvested at around 100 days and taste best when the pods are fully grown but the peas inside are not yet very big.
There are many ways to enjoy field peas in cooking. Field peas are an important source of iron, fiber and protein and can be easily preserved right after picking by freezing. Peas can be boiled or mashed and buttered with salt or other spices while the pods are often added to stir fry dishes. Pea soup is a common dish in many cuisines as are meat stews with peas. In addition, many varieties, such as sugar or snap peas can be consumed immediately off the vine.
Wisconsin was once America’s leading producer of field peas in the early 20th century and the crop remains popular with gardeners in the state. The state’s cool and moist spring, summer and fall climate is ideal for the cultivation of the peas. Although some varieties are more heat tolerant, most prefer cool soil and are frost hardy. These peas are typically planted 1 to 1.5 inches (2.5 to 4 centimeters) deep in single or double rows. The U.S. states of Washington, Oregon, Minnesota, North Dakota and Idaho also produce large quantities of field peas annually for use as food as well as seed.
In the American Southeast, what we call field peas are something along the lines of the pink-eyed, purple hull variety, and I love these. They're not as time-consuming as pinto beans to cook, and they are simply delicious.
As with other beans, they benefit from some bacon or other cured pork cooked with them, along with being well seasoned with black pepper. My mother always put a whole hot pepper (a cayenne or serrano) in the peas and removed it before serving. It didn't exactly make them spicy, but it did give them a great flavor.
My country roots show clearly when I get a bowl of peas, crumble cornbread on top and feast in contentment.
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