How do you cook black-eyed peas?
Right about now I hear a distant snickering, especially from some of you who grew up in the South…
Just to let you know, during my Texas childhood I spent many sweaty summer hours at the kitchen table, sipping ice tea and shelling black-eyed peas under Aurora’s watchful eye. Occasionally I’d sneak a few into my mouth, savoring the green leguminous flavor and squishiness of the naked pea. And I loved eating them for supper, when they appeared in a white bowl, khaki-colored, butter-soft and swimming in rich, savory juice.
But I missed the cooking part.
At Pearl Market in San Antonio last week I discovered a few bags of shelled black-eyed peas at the Wheeler Farm stand. The gentleman who picked them told me he’d hulled them at 6 PM the night before, so I bought a small bag and hurried home before they soured in the 105 degree heat.
I rinsed the peas, removing a few stray hulls and a piece of grit, put them in a pot with some chopped onion and shreds of Texas Black Forest ham that I found in the refrigerator. Then I added a little water--maybe a cup and a half--and set the pot to simmer.
A few minutes later Carmel walked into the kitchen. She cast a veiled glance at the pot.
“What?” I said.
“Oh nothing,” she said casually.
“OK, what am I doing wrong?”
She paused diplomatically. “It all depends on how you like them. With or without juice…”
Well naturally I wanted the delicious, salty, savory juice. It’s the best part of the dish. My family called it “potlikker”—but now I wonder, was that right? Strictly speaking, potlikker seems to refer to the liquid left behind after cooking collard and other greens, as Zell Miller (yes, that Zell Miller) forcefully reminded The New York Times when he was still lieutenant governor of Georgia. (Its editors incurred Miller’s wrath by incorrectly turning potlikker into two words and misspelling it as “pot liquor.”)
But a few years ago I attended a Slow Food Southern Pea Tasting and my notes specifically refer to the liquid left after cooking peas as potlikker, especially when you’ve simmered them with the requisite pork fatback.
We tasted a lot of heirloom peas that day—Lady cream peas, 6 weeks Sugar crowders, pink-eyed purple hulls, purple hull crowders, Big Boys, black-eyed peas, Brown crowders, Colossus crowders, Dixie Lee, and Black or Yard-long crowders. All were cooked in water for about 20 minutes with nothing more than salt and fatback that had been sautéed in a cast iron skillet.
According to local writer David Auerbach, these legumes, a.k.a. cowpeas, were brought from Africa during the 18th century as food for slaves. “Eventually [they] became a staple food across the Southeastern United States—a food crop for poor blacks and somewhat later, poor whites,” he writes in “Peaseable Kingdom.” Most can be farmed under “harsh growing conditions…[such] conditions being what poor people are allotted.”
There are hundreds of heirloom varieties—some with wonderful names like Washday, Running Conch and Pole Cat—but the depredations of agribusiness have made it harder to find some of the older types unless you frequent curb markets where old timers bring their crops, or order from sources such as Southern Seed Legacy or Southern Exposure Seed Exchange and plant your own.
At the Slow Food tasting no spices were used—which is understandable given the legacy of peas as poor people’s food.
So what was that peppery taste in the black-eyed peas that Carmel cooked? Well, green peppercorns, which is pretty exotic. They happened to be in the grinder next to the stove and, like all good cooks, she improvised on the spot. What’s more, she cooked the peas for nearly two hours in lots and lots of water, enough for a continuous rolling boil with the lid set over the pot at half-mast.
I must tell you that Carmel’s black-eyed peas were creamy and succulent, swimming in rich juice that had acquired a deep almost umami-like flavor from being simmered with the salty, smoky ham. And the green peppercorns added a just whisper of heat to the starchy peas.
Are all you traditionalists fuming? Green peppercorns and Black Forest ham? Really?
So here’s a surprise: Did you know that dried, split black-eyed peas are eaten in India where they are known as chowli dal? And that, according to The Indian Grocery Store Demystified, they are often cooked with coconut and curry leaves in South India, or with mustard seeds, chopped onion, ginger and garlic in the north? And that the finest peppercorns—black, white and green—come from the west coast of India? Just thought I’d mention it….
Here in North Carolina, the black-eyed pea season runs from late July or early August into September. It’s best to buy shelled peas in small bags, since large quantities may sour in the summer heat.
Not Exactly Traditional Black-Eyed Peas with Country Ham and Green Peppercorns
If you live in the south, try cooking peas with salty country ham for flavor. You can also use Black Forest ham, sautéed pork fatback or pancetta.
To serve 4
3 cups fresh black eyed peas, shelled
½ cup onion, chopped
½ cup country ham, chopped
Freshly ground green peppercorns
Salt, if desired
1. Rinse the peas in a colander, removing any grit or stray hulls.
2. Put them in a medium pot along with the onion and ham. Add water to about 1 inch from the top of the pot.
3. Bring to a rolling boil and partly cover the pot with a lid, leaving enough room for steam to escape. (Otherwise you will have a mess on your hands.) You can reduce the heat slightly, but be sure to maintain a slow boil while the peas cook.
4. It can take as much as 2 hours to cook the peas, so add more water if necessary. Start tasting them at about an hour and half. The peas should keep their shape, but be very soft and creamy, and the juice fully flavored and not at all watery.
5. When done, add salt if necessary—the ham has a lot, so you may not need it—and a grind or two of dried green peppercorns. There should just be a hint of peppery taste to contrast with the smoothness of the peas.
6. Serve in individual bowls with lots of juice.