Peas have thousands of years of culinary history, obviously, they get around. But not always to today's modern kitchen. (Bill Hogan/Chicago Tribune)

Peas are an ancient vegetable that most of us grew up dumping from a can or a freezer bag, or taking from the pantry in the form of dried split peas. Shelling peas by hand, it seemed, was too much work.

But the flavor of fresh peas rewards those who take on that time-consuming chore. And some peas need no shelling; they're eaten pod and all.

An early spring staple for millennia, peas are at their best just plucked from the vine. Ask any gardener who grows peas; they often get munched before they reach the kitchen. The reason: Peas' sugar content is highest the moment they're picked. Once off the vine, that sugar rapidly converts to starch.

Humanity's connection to peas is practically in our DNA. Archaeologists have traced the consumption of peas back almost 8,000 years to Syria, Turkey and Jordan, where peas grew wild.

Peas also have thousands of years of culinary history in India, Pakistan and southern parts of Russia. By the Middle Ages, they had made their way into Europe, then landed in America thanks to the colonists.

All these peas contribute to a global menu of possibilities. Peas with mint taste French or Turkish, depending on the other ingredients. A pea salad with cheese and mayonnaise makes for a proper British picnic. In Spain, peas combine with ham for classic tapas. Pea soup variations are common from Sweden to Iran.

In his "The Best Recipes in the World," Mark Bittman uses peas in the Japanese savory pancakes called okonomiyaki, Middle Eastern rice pilaf, Chinese stir-fry, Italian soups and pastas, and Vietnamese stir-fry with nam pla.

Obviously, peas get around. But not always all the way to the kitchen.

Shelled or English peas
These are plucked from their pods, which tend to be tough and fibrous. Look for firm peas of uniform size and color. Larger peas tend to be older and tougher. Pods should be crisp and shiny.

Snow or Asian peas
Not as sweet as their seedy counterparts, these have flat pods with tiny, immature peas. They're meant to be eaten whole or sliced diagonally in half. Look for firm, crisp pods.

Sugar snap peas
These peas blend the best of snow and English varieties. The pods are edible, and the peas are round and sweet. Look for firm, crisp pods. These are best when lightly steamed or stir-fried.

Nutrition breakdown
One cup of shelled green peas has 110 calories; one cup of snow peas, 35 calories. Sugar snap peas have 45-55 calories per cup. All three are high in vitamin C; shelled peas also offer a lot of vitamin A.

Gnocchi with crab and peas

Prep: 5 minutes
Cook: 15 minutes