Late in the summer is one of my favorite times of the year for produce. That’s when fresh peas, beans, and amazing “home-grown” tomatoes come in season, and everything is so delicious. Also, it also means that Fall is getting close, and as I live in Mississippi, it’s too dang hot. This recipe is about cooking fresh, purple hull peas with bacon, but you can use the technique for any type of fresh pea.
About Peas and the Civil War
Ok, an unexpected history lesson here. Peas weren’t really eaten before the Civil War in the South. They were used for animal fodder. When the Union army marched through the South, they burned fields and food supplies to push the South into surrender. However, they also thought peas were unworthy of human consumption, and left the field peas unburnt. Near starvation, southerners learned to not only cook peas, but prize them.
This also led to a unique Southern Tradition, the “New Year’s Day Lucky Meal.” Peas, pork, turnip or collard greens, and cornbread are served for New Year’s Day. the peas represent luck (as in “lucky they left us those peas,”) the greens represent money, and pork, well, it’s the meat of the South and we like pork chops.
There are many varieties of “field peas” or “cow peas” as they are commonly called. One of my favorites are purple hull peas. The taste among the varieties is similar, but will vary according to the type. Black-eyed peas are the most commonly consumed now, and are readily available dried or frozen. Don’t worry, I’ll give you some hint for cooking those too.
Bacon, Ham Hocks, Chicken Stock, and other ways to flavor Peas
Generally, peas aren’t seasoned heavily. I was raised to cook them with a bit of cooked bacon (sear the bacon in the pot, then add the peas.) A bit of salt and that was that. My husband thinks my pea rules are insane. He cooks them with black pepper, and sometimes even chili powder, cumin, garlic, etc. I must admit, they’re good. But, not traditional. So, I’m giving you a traditional method of cooking fresh peas, and you can adjust the flavors as you see fit.
Smoked ham hocks or fatback are a traditional seasoning for peas and beans. However, peas, especially fresh ones, cook fairly quickly, so I use bacon as my savory item instead of ham hocks. Ham hocks are much better in a long-simmered pot of white or pinto beans, as the longer cooking time allows the hock to break down and infuse the beans. I also add a bit of chicken base to the water.
Checking for Doneness
Most Southerners cook their peas and beans a bit more tender than most directions would call for cooking. This is your call. The perfect pea is soft but not mushy. Most recipes I have read and tested end up with a pea with a bit of firmness, almost undercooked quality to them. Now, if I’m making peas for different uses, such as a Corn-Pea salad, I’ll go for that texture. Otherwise, I’m cooking them so they are a joyous soft harmony on your palate. As they cook, occasionally test one, and turn them off when they are to the texture you like. Cook for yourself, not for some recipe!
Fresh vs Frozen vs Dried
Fresh is always preferable, but only available at certain times and in certain markets. Your best bet is to visit your local Farmer’s market, support some hard-working people, and buy some there. Other than that, you are left with frozen or dried. Black-eyed peas are good dried, but everything else should be selected as frozen. With dried peas, soak overnight then cook. With fresh or frozen, place in a stock pot, cover with 1″ of water, add salt and chicken base, then bring to a boil and turn down to a simmer. Easy-Peasy! Depending on your preference, you’ll simmer anywhere from 30 minutes (according to most recipes) to around an hour (according to most Southerners.)
As always, I hope you enjoy!