Beans are generally mild in flavor and have a texture that ranges from creamy to crisp. Peas, on the other hand, are varied in taste, from sweet to pleasantly subtle.
Fresh beans fall into two broad categories: pod beans and shell beans. Pod beans, such as green beans and romano beans, are eaten whole with the pods. For shell beans, such as fresh fava (broad) beans, only the inner seeds can be consumed. Some peas, like sugar snap peas and snow peas, are also eaten whole, while others, like the spring staple English peas, must be removed from their pod.
When buying shell beans or edamame (baby soybeans), look for beans that are still slightly moist; the pods should be pliable, not crisp. Seek out fava beans with soft, pale green pods packed with pale green beans, but avoid beans that are bulging out of their pods, as they will be tough and starchy.
Green beans and wax beans should snap easily when broken, have velvety skins and be evenly, brightly colored. Long beans, commonly used in Asian cooking, should be flexible but not limp or dry looking.
Pods of English peas should be bright green and feel heavy; each pound of whole pods yields roughly a cup of shelled peas, so pay attention to measurements in recipes. Choose snow peas and sugar snap peas that feel crisp and snap when broken, avoiding larger, thick-skinned pods. Snow peas should appear light green, and sugar snap peas should be a darker shade.
Store shell beans, edamame and fava beans in a plastic bag in the refrigerator for up to 3 days. If not using shell beans right away, blanch them and place them in an airtight container, then refrigerate for up to 5 days.
Green beans and wax beans can be wrapped in dry paper towels and stored in a plastic bag in the refrigerator for up to 3 days. To prevent mold, leave the bag open for air circulation.
The sugars in English peas convert quickly to starch, so they are best eaten the day they are purchased. If needed, store them in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 3 days. Snow and sugar snap peas can be stored the same way; if they begin to wilt, immerse them in cold water for 10 to 15 minutes to recrisp them.
Remove shell beans from the pod just before cooking. Fresh shell beans tend to cook much faster than dried, so pay attention to cooking times; remove them from the heat as soon as they become tender. Once removed from their pods, the tough outer skin of fava beans should be peeled away. To remove the skin, blanch the shelled beans for one minute in boiling water, drain, and let the beans cool. Then pinch the beans to slip off their skins. If the beans are young, fresh and small, the skinning may not be necessary.
Rinse green beans and wax beans under cold running water before using. Snap off their pointy stem ends, and remove any tough strings that run along the length of the bean. Both varieties should be cooked whole at a high temperature for a brief period of time to retain their color. Lock in the vibrant color and crisp texture of green beans by refreshing in cold water immediately after cooking.
Shell English peas right before cooking to keep them from drying out, then cook them briefly in 1/4 inch of simmering water for 3 to 4 minutes. It is important not to overcook them, or they will quickly turn soggy and lose their color.
Remove strings from snow and sugar snap peas by breaking off the tip of each pea and pulling it along the length of the pod. Both varieties should be cooked for as briefly as possible to retain their sweet flavor.
Adapted from Williams-Sonoma Kitchen Companion: The A to Z Guide to Everyday Cooking, Equipment and Ingredients (Time-Life Books, 2000)