Although technological advances have tightened the quality gap between frozen and fresh vegetables, let’s be real: The latter remains the preferable option.
There’s one notable exception: green peas.
(And, yes, peas are legumes, not vegetables. But in the way that we think of tomatoes as vegetables — shocker, they’re a fruit — it’s easy to routinely shorthand peas as members of the vegetable family.)
Miraculously, preserving these delicate green spheres via the freezer somehow doesn’t dent their appealing flavor, texture or color. Which is why they’re a reliable burst of summer sunshine on a cold, overcast winter day.
Peas are also a source of protein and fiber as well as antioxidants and vitamins A and C. Another plus: If stored at consistent temperatures, peas will last for up to two years in the freezer.
Fortunately, Twin Cities cooks don’t have to go far to find superior frozen peas, thanks to Sno Pac Foods, a family-run business in the state’s far southeastern corner.
The Gengler family covers all the bases: Not only do they devote a portion of their 3,000 acres of organic farming operations to cultivating peas — about six varieties — but they also package them at their plant in nearby Caledonia. Sno Pac peas are sold nationally, and they are available in many supermarkets throughout the metro area.
The family’s roots in all things frozen reach back more than a century. In the early 1900s, a spring-fed pond yielded one of many enterprises for patriarch John Peter Gengler, who harvested blocks of ice and shipped them south.
By the 1930s, the Genglers were operating a mechanical refrigeration plant (the Sno Pac name dates to when butchered turkeys were preserved on shaved ice) and raising vegetables for a canning factory in nearby Onalaska, Wis.
“That’s when my great-grandpa and grandpa started playing around with freezing vegetables, since they had the capability,” said Peter Gengler, who owns the business with his brother Nick Gengler.
The post-World War II era introduced an influx of pesticides and herbicides into American agriculture.
“But my grandpa never thought it was a good idea, so he never used them,” said Gengler. “We never had a switch-over. We’ve always been organic, we’ve always used compost and lime and all the stuff that organic farmers use.”
Demand began to ramp up in the 1960s. For Gengler, the Alar pesticide scare of the late 1980s was a major turning point.
“To me, that’s when the organics industry really started taking off,” he said. “That’s when it blossomed into what we see today. We grew along with that.”
Baptism into the family business comes early, and a fifth generation is now hard at work. Gengler was picking strawberries by the age of 5 (the family no longer cultivates berries, preferring to rely upon other producers in the region), and was shoveling coal at the packing plant by the time he was 7 or 8.
“And I loved every minute of it,” he said. “I never planned on doing anything different.”
While the farm also turns out green beans, soybeans and sweet corn, the shining star is peas.
“There’s plenty of great farmland in Minnesota,” said Gengler. “For whatever reason, the soil that we have produces good peas.”
Turns out that peas have become something of a tough sell. Could it be that canned peas — which are generally a muted facsimile of their fresh and frozen counterparts — have negatively shaped the opinions of generations of Americans?
“I hear so many times that people hate peas, or that their kids won’t eat them,” said Gengler. “But I’ll be at a trade show and I’ll tell people, ‘I know you think you hate peas, but won’t you give these a try?’ Nine times out of 10 — or better — they end up saying that they like them.”
Rick Nelson • @RickNelsonStrib