Southern peas and butter beans, popped fresh from the pod and there are dozens of types—each with a subtle difference in taste and texture.

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 a southern 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 thrive in this type of weather and, therefore, popular. Every region has its favorites, which are the result of localized seed saving. They come in a wide array of shapes, sizes and colors with curious names, such as Red Ripper, Stick Ups, Myrtles, Old Timer and Dixie Lee. Their flavors are remarkably distinct, ranging from “hints of cardamom to 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 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 the Union’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 for the livestock and slaves. Aristocratic Southerners, who had previously scorned the humble field pea, now found them the last resort against starvation. Superb taste, rather than desperation, have driven the consumption of field peas across boundaries of race and class ever since.

How the Peas are Packaged at the Farmer’s Market

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 and 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 butter beans, 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 head space 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 canned beans. Simply use 2 cups cooked and drained peas for one (15-oz.) can.

How to Cook Field Peas

Field peas are excellent for succotash, salads, dips and stews.

Traditional Recipe:

  • 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 and cover with water. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Skim off the foam. Reduce heat, cook covered until the peas are quite tender, but not mushy, about 20 minutes. Add the salt and pepper and mix well. 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
  • 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 fresh thyme sprig
  • 1 small garlic clove, crushed


To the beans add the broth and remaining ingredients to the pan; bring to a low boil. Partially cover, reduce heat, and simmer 20 minutes or until tender. Drain; discard thyme and garlic.

Field Peas in Light Tomato Sauce

Note: Peas cooked this way are light enough to accompany a piece of grilled or sautéed fish or chicken, but substantial enough to play a starring role as a summer vegetable entrée. 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 the directions above
  • Salt
  • 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 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 the 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.

Succotash Salad

6 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


Cook beans according to directions above and drain.

Sauté corn in 1 tablespoon oil in a small skillet over medium-high heat 2 to 3 minutes or until crisp-tender.

Whisk the lemon juice with the next 4 ingredients and the remaining 2 tablespoons oil in a large bowl; stir in corn and cooked butter beans. Serve immediately or cover and chill up to 3 days.

** FOR USE WITH AP WEEKLY FEATURES ** This photo provided by Artisan shows Flounder With Lady Pea Succotash, made with a recipe from "Frank Stitt's Southern Table: Recipes and Gracious Traditions From Highlands Bar and Grill." The flounder is complemented by the tender lady peas, Stitt points out, and the addition of basil, dill and chives makes a very simple dish very special. (AP Photo/Artisan/Christopher Hirsheimer)

Red Snapper Over Lady Peas                                                                                             

Serves 4


  • 1/2 red onion, cut into 1-inch thick slices
  • 1 cup cooked lady peas (1/4 cup cooking 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, plus extra for drizzling
  • 4 red snapper fillets, (6-8 ounce each)
  • Oil for brushing on the fish and onion before grilling


Prepare an outdoor grill or preheat the broiler. Brush oil on the onion slices. 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 diced 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 of the fillets with olive oil and season with salt and pepper.

Place the fish, skinless side down, on the grill and cook until golden, 3-5 minutes. Carefully turn fish, skin side down, and grill or broil until cooked through, another 3-5 minutes.

While the fish is cooking, add the pea succotash and reserved cooking liquid to a sauté pan and cook over medium heat until heated through. Serve fish over the pea mixture and drizzle extra virgin olive oil over the top.

Pea Cakes                                                                                                                                                                                      

These cakes are good served over cooked greens.

Serves 4


  • 2 cups cooked peas (pink-eyed purple hulls, butter beans or crowder peas are preferred), drained but retain all the cooking broth
  • 1 cup crumbled cornbread
  • 2 tablespoon chopped chives
  • 1 tablespoon minced red chili pepper, such as a ripe Serrano
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil, divided
  • 1 tablespoon all-purpose flour, plus extra for dredging
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
  • 1 large egg, beaten


Puree 1/4 cup of the cooked peas with 1/4 cup of the reserved cooking 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, 1 tablespoon 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 remaining 2 tablespoons 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

Serves 6


  • 1 1/2 cups cooked field peas, 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 the serving platter


Mix the beans in a large bowl with the shallot, sherry vinaigrette, salt and pepper. Gently stir in the 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.

Sherry Vinaigrette


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.