I had never heard of field peas until I moved to the South. Green peas, I knew, so I just figured field peas were another name for peas. Apparently not!
Shell beans are one of the highlights of summer and they are good. They are low in fat and loaded with protein, potassium and fiber. These petite vegetables are all different and yet incredibly similar at the same time. They come in multiple shapes, sizes and colors. They are confusingly referred to as peas, beans, or both, and they are a much revered staple in Southern cooking. Since the spring green pea is not well suited to the Deep South‘s infamously hot and humid weather, field peas or cowpeas thrived in this type of weather and became more popular.
Every region has its favorites, which are the result of localized seed saving, reflecting idiosyncratic preferences in flavor and texture. They come in a wide array of shapes, sizes, and colors with curious names, such as Red Ripper, Stick Ups, Myrtle’s, Old Timer, and Dixie Lee. Their flavors are remarkably distinct, ranging from “hints of cardamom” to “reminiscent of boiled peanuts.”
Field peas, however, were not always so highly regarded. They were known to have spread to Florida from the West Indies around 1700 and to the Carolinas by 1714. Field peas came to the west with the slaves from Africa and, because of the field peas ability to adapt to southern tropical conditions, the vegetable became a staple. The importance of field peas in the southern diet cannot be overstated. Rivaled only by corn, these little legumes have saved many poor farmers from starvation more times than can be counted. Nutritious field peas provided the backbone of their diet when the only meat on the table was what seasoned the vegetables.
During the Civil War, salt was scarce and those with several hogs had no way to preserve the meat after the slaughter. Without meat, protein-rich field peas became the primary source of nourishment. Many unfortunate Southerners in the path of Union General William Tecumseh Sherman’s, March to the See, had their livestock slaughtered and their crops and storehouses burned.
Field peas were left untouched, however, because they were considered food solely for livestock and slaves. Aristocratic Southerners, who had previously scorned the humble field pea, now found them the last resort against starvation. Well-earned reverence and superb taste, rather than desperation, have driven the consumption of field peas across boundaries of race and class ever since.
Here in the Deep South these various shell beans are easily interchangeable in recipes and are mostly prepared in the traditional method. That is, brought to a boil and simmered until tender with some seasoning and fat, usually bacon or ham hocks.
Types of Field Peas
Speckled butter beans have a rich, creamy texture and earthy, nut-like flavor. When cooked, they lose their variegated color and turn pinkish brown.
Crowders nestle so closely inside the pod that the ends of the peas begin to square off. Brown crowders are favored by many for their hearty flavor.
Pink-eyed peas have a colorful purple hull and a lighter, less earthy taste than their black-eyed pea cousins.
Butter beans, the colloquial name for baby green limas, are highly prized in the South. When perfectly cooked, the inside of the beans become creamy and take on a rich, buttery texture.
Lady cream peas are smaller and sweeter in flavor than other field peas. Considered to be the top of the line in this vegetable group, they remain pale green or white when cooked.
What to Look For
When shopping for unshelled peas or butterbeans, choose flexible, well-filled pods with tender seeds.
How to Freeze Field Peas
To freeze, wash shelled peas or butter beans and blanch in boiling water to cover for 2 minutes; cool immediately in ice water, and drain well. Package the beans in airtight containers, leaving 1/2-inch headspace, or in zip-top plastic freezer bags, removing as much air as possible. Seal, and freeze up to 6 months. Don’t thaw frozen peas before cooking. Fresh or frozen field peas can easily be substituted in recipes calling for rinsed and drained canned peas. Simply use 2 cups cooked and drained peas for 1 (15-oz.) can.
How to Cook Field Peas
Field peas make for great succotash, salads, dips, and stews.
- 4 cups fresh shelled peas
- 2 1/2 cups water
- a small slice (about 1- 1/2 ounces) of salt pork or other cured, smoked meat or a piece of fatty pork such as bacon
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 teaspoon black pepper
Put the peas in a pot, add salt and pepper and cover with water. Bring to a boil over med-high heat. Skim off foam. Reduce heat, cook covered until the peas are quite tender, but not mushy, about 20-30 minutes. Taste carefully for seasoning. Serve hot with cornbread or rice.
My Way of Cooking Field Peas
Carefully wash and pick over the peas. Discard any damaged peas. Put 3 cups fresh, shelled lady cream peas (or other field pea variety) in a pot and cover with water. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat. At this point the peas will give off a lot of foam. Drain the peas in a colander and wash off all the scum. Clean the pot. Return the washed peas to the washed pot.
- 4 cups chicken broth
- 2 tablespoons chopped onion
- 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 1 fresh thyme sprig
- 1 small garlic clove, crushed
To the beans add the broth and remaining ingredients to pan; bring to a boil. Partially cover, reduce heat, and simmer 20 minutes or until tender. Drain; discard thyme and garlic.
My favorite recipe and, one in which, I add an Italian accent.
Field Peas in Light Tomato Sauce
Note: Peas cooked this way are light enough to accompany a piece of grilled or sauteed fish or chicken, but substantial enough to play a starring role as a summer vegetable entree. If you like a spicier sauce, finely chop a hot pepper and add it to the onions when making the sauce. A pinch of crushed red pepper flakes will also do the trick.
- 3 cups shelled crowder peas or any field pea, cooked according to directions above
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1 oz. pancetta, finely chopped
- 1 cup onion, finely diced
- 1/3 cup celery, finely, freshly ground black pepper
- 2 teaspoons garlic, finely chopped
- 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
- 2 cups fresh tomato, peeled, seeded and finely diced or canned
- 1 cup chicken stock
While the peas are cooking, pour the oil in a heavy, nonreactive skillet. Place the pancetta in the pan and cook over medium-low heat, turning as needed, until well browned and very crisp. Remove the pancetta from the pan to a paper towel and set aside.
Add the onion and celery to the skillet, sprinkle generously with salt and a few grinds of black pepper and stir well. Cook over medium heat, stirring often, until the onion and celery are just tender, about 10 minutes. Stir in the garlic and dried thyme and cook 5 minutes longer. Stir in the diced tomato and sprinkle generously with salt. Cook for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally, and add the chicken stock. Partially cover and simmer very gently for 20 minutes. Taste carefully for seasoning and adjust as needed.
Drain the cooked crowders, reserving the cooking liquid. Add crowders and cooked pancetta to the simmering tomato sauce and stir well. Simmer gently for 5 to 10 minutes, adding a bit more of the reserved cooking liquid if the sauce becomes too dry. Taste for seasoning. 6-8 servings.
- 1 cup fresh butter beans or any field pea
- 2 cups fresh corn kernels (3 large ears)
- 3 tablespoons olive oil, divided
- 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
- 3 tablespoons chopped fresh chives
- 1/2 teaspoon hot sauce
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 1/4 teaspoon pepper
1. Cook beans according to directions above and drain.
2. Sauté corn in 1 tablespoon oil in a small skillet over medium-high heat 2 to 3 minutes or until crisp-tender.
3. Whisk together lemon juice, next 4 ingredients, and remaining 2 tablespoons oil in a large bowl; stir in corn and beans. Serve immediately, or cover and chill up to 3 days.
Red Snapper over Lady Peas
- 1/2 small red onion, cut into 1-inch slices
- 1 cup cooked lady peas (1/4 cup pot liquid from the peas reserved)
- 2 tomatoes, seeded and cut into ¼-inch dice
- 2 ears corn, husked, boiled for 4 minutes, kernels cut off the cob
- 1/2 small shallot, finely minced
- 4 basil leaves, torn into small pieces
- 1 teaspoon fresh minced chives
- 1 tablespoon sherry vinegar
- Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
- 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 4 red snapper fillets, (6-8 ounce)
- Oil for brushing on the fish
Prepare a hot grill or preheat the broiler. Grill or broil the onion slices, turning once, until lightly charred on both sides, approximately 3-4 minutes per side.
Let cool, then cut into 1/4 inch dice. In a large bowl, combine the charred onion, cooked peas, tomatoes, corn, shallot, basil and chives.
Stir in the sherry vinegar and season with salt and pepper. Stir in the olive oil, and adjust the seasonings to taste. Set aside.
To prepare the fish, coat both sides with olive oil and season the fish with salt and pepper.
Place the fish, skinless side down, on the grill and cook until nicely golden, 3-5 minutes. Carefully turn fish, skin side down, and cook until done, another 3-5 minute.
While the fish is cooking, add the pea succotash and reserved pot liquid to a sauté pan and cook over medium heat until heated through. Serve fish drizzled with a splash of olive oil over the peas.
These cakes are good served over cooked greens.
- 2 cups cooked peas (pink eyed purple hulls, butter beans or crowder peas preferred), drained but retain all the cooking broth
- 1 cup crumbled cornbread
- 2 tablespoon chopped chives
- 1 tablespoon minced red hot chili pepper, such as a ripe serrano
- 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
- 1 tablespoon all-purpose flour, plus extra for dredging
- Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
- 1 large egg, beaten
- 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
Puree 1/4 cup of the cooked peas with 1/4 cup of reserved broth in a blender until smooth.
Pour into a medium bowl, add the remaining whole peas, 1 tablespoon of the reserved broth, the cornbread, chives, hot pepper, olive oil, flour, salt and pepper and mix well.
Add the egg and mix again. (You may need to adjust the “wetness” by adding a bit more flour or broth: it should be just moist enough to hold together.)
Form 8 to 10 small cakes by shaping about 3 tablespoons of the mixture into 2-inch wide patties, pressing the mixture with your fingers and patting together.
Heat the vegetable oil in a heavy skillet over medium-high heat. Dust the cakes with a little flour and gently place them, in batches if necessary, in the hot oil.
Lower the heat to medium and cook, turning once, until golden brown, about 4 minutes on each side.
Shrimp, Crab and Field Pea Salad
- 1 1/2 cups cooked shell beans, any variety
- 1 shallot, minced
- 1/2 cup sherry vinaigrette, recipe below
- Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 2 ripe avocados, halved, pitted, peeled, sliced and then halved again
- 1 pound crabmeat, picked
- 1 pound medium shrimp, cooked and peeled
- Grated zest of 1 lemon
- 1 cup julienned fresh basil leaves
- Thin tomato slices, enough to cover a platter
Mix the beans in a large bowl with shallot, sherry vinaigrette, salt and pepper. Gently stir in avocado, crabmeat, shrimp, and most of the basil. Cover a serving platter with tomato slices and spoon the salad over the tomato slices. Garnish with lemon zest and remaining basil.
Makes 1/2 cup
- 1/2 shallot finely minced
- 2 tablespoons sherry vinegar
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 6 tablespoon olive oil
Combine the shallot, sherry vinegar and a good pinch each of salt and pepper in a small bowl and let sit for about 10 minutes.
Whisk in olive oil in a steady stream. Taste and adjust the seasonings.
Note: The vinaigrette will keep for several days in a jar in the refrigerator.
- Fresh Field Pea and Heirloom Tomato Salad (realmomsrealfood.wordpress.com)
- Black-Eyed Pea Salad (glutenfreefinally.com)
- Day 222 – What’s Fresh at the Market (yearofhealthierliving.wordpress.com)