A Passion for Purple Hull Peas

A Yank like me didn't know much 'bout fresh field peas growing up; many years would pass until I even felt a pod in my hand, zipped it open on its seam and smelled its earthiness.

In fact, as a kid, I hardly ate beans at all, with the exception of the occasional can of chickpeas that my father would include on his antipasto platter of cured meats and cheese. (I can see that plate in my mind's eye, iceberg lettuce as a liner, salami and provolone cheese rolled up, toothpicks at the ready.)


A close up of purple hulls, inside and out. (Kim O'Donnel)

It seems that as an adult, I'm making up for lost time because now I can't get enough of beans. I can't imagine my life without them -- dried, canned, fresh, black, white, speckled -- they're all good in my book.

Not until I became a cook did I have the experience of shelling fresh beans and then cooking them up, learning of their tender and quick-cooking nature. There are more varieties of beans (known as 'peas' in the Caribbean and the American south) than there are days in a year, but today's spotlight is on the cowpea (aka Southern Field pea), which encompasses the crowder pea and the well-known black-eyed pea. This summer, I had the great fortune of being at the farmers' market at the right time, when one farmer was selling bags of shelled "purple hull peas." They looked like black eyes in shape and size, but differed in color -- kind of lavender with a little pistachio green mixed in, even a wee bit of pink around the eye.

I took them home and boiled them for about 15 minutes, maybe a bit longer, drained them, saved the "pot licker" and threw the peas into a skillet with oil and butter, softened onions, garlic, a chopped up chile and some fresh thyme leaves.

Over lowish heat, I let them cook for about 10 minutes, so that everybody in the pan could talk to another and cozy up their flavors. Salt to taste, then this dish was good to go.

As I was slurping up my bowl, I nearly kicked myself for not thinking to take a picture for this here blog space, so my fellow Yanks could see what I was talking about. Weeks went by, and I felt badly about the missed photo op (not to mention I was craving more of those peas). But just last week, I got a dose of good bean karma, when I spotted purple hull peas at the Clarendon farm market, still in their pretty green-purplish pods (which I'm told, can be eaten when still young).

While watching dumb TV last night, I shelled a pound of peas, and while my coffee was brewing this morning, I cooked peas for breakfast, a wonderful way to start the day.

By the way, cowpeas were transported on slave ships from Africa to North America, and figured largely into the diet of slaves on southern plantations. The pea's association with "cow" comes from white landowners thinking that beans were fit only for cows, but ironically, the slaves were eating more nutritious, high-protein fare than the heavy salt-pork diet of their masters.

The love for the cowpea lives on in Emerson, Ark., where a purple hull festival is held every June. I may have to mark my calendar for next year's festivities. The cowpea, however, is listed on the Slow Food's Ark of Taste, a list designed to create awareness of foods that represent agricultural and cultural diversity and that are in danger of disappearing from the food chain.

Got a cowpea tale or recipe to share? Do so in the comments area below.

By Kim ODonnel |  September 17, 2007; 11:07 AM ET Culinary Education , Seasonal Produce , Vegetarian/Vegan
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Oh, yes, bring those field peas on. I bought a mess of purple hulls Sat also. I'm not serving this batch to my family ('though they like them also), but will portion them into lunch size servings for me (well, maybe for sending in a thermos to school also).

I cook mine in the pressure cooker with a slice of bacon, and add some basil, salt and pepper after the pressure comes down. Then I make some southern style cornbread to dip in the pot liquor. My 8 yo loves this meal with a salad made from Misty and Eli's (from Burke's Saturday market) lettuce mix. My 6 yo is not so fond of cornbread, but loves it dipped in the bean's pot liquor.

When I was picking out the beans on Saturday, a woman asked me how long it took to shell them, but I was hard pressed to answer, since usually I have the girls do it. Not long. It's definitely worth it.

And soon there will be October beans. And we've also been shelling lima beans. Yum!

Posted by: purple hull lover | September 17, 2007 12:53 PM

I grew up eating peas in MS topped with a relish of chopped fresh tomato, onion, and jalapeno.

Works whether you're having them with rice or cornbread (and by the way, true Southern-style cornbread is extremely sturdy. It's 100% cornmeal, no flour and no sugar. It's cooked in a cast-iron skillet and it's no more than an inch thick, if that... personally, I prefer mine to be more tender - half flour/half cornmeal and to have a little sugar in it).

Posted by: Leslie | September 17, 2007 4:47 PM

. . . and also a southern style cornbread lover. I could never understand why anyone would want to put sugar in cornbread. And while I would say that my cornbread is sturdy, that isn't the first descriptor I would use. Mine is almost a steamed pudding consistency, since I use two or three eggs along with white cornmeal, buttermilk, and leavenings. Mm, maybe that will be on the menu tomorrow night!

Leslie, your field peas recipe sure sounds flavorful!

Posted by: purple hull lover | September 17, 2007 9:37 PM

Purple Hull Lover, would you be willing to share your cornbread recipe? It sounds divine. Thanks much!

Posted by: Allison | September 18, 2007 10:09 AM

Pink-eye purple hulls - something I admit I take for granted. We usually grow 4 40-foot rows, twice a summer. When they come in, we shell, blanch and freeze them in 1-cup quantities. If you like peas, why not grow some next year? They're very low-maintenance.

They are very tasty on their own. My MIL only lightly boils them, so they're still hard and crunchy. I like them tender with a little salt and pepper. We both agree that the peas taste fine on their own.

I also sometimes cook them with a bag of okra, some diced tomatoes, some chopped onion, corn kernels, and Tony's creole seasoning, all over cooked rice.

PS my vote is for sugar in my cornbread. And a thick crust and tender middle.

Posted by: Karen in AL | September 18, 2007 11:12 AM

Here is my cornbread recipe. It comes from the Joy of Cooking cookbook.

Heat oven to 450. Have ready a 9 inch cast iron skillet with 1-2 tablespoons of bacon fat in it (not in the oven yet).

Whisk together thoroughly in a large bowl:
1 3/4 cups stoneground cornmeal, preferably white
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt (3/4 t if using buttermilk with salt)

Put the cast iron skillet with bacon fat in the oven.

Whisk until foamy in another bowl:

2 large eggs (I've been known to use three)

Whisk in 2 cups buttermilk

Add the wet ingredients to the dry ingredients and whisk until just blended. Pour the batter into the heated skillet.

The recipe says to bake until the top is browned and the center feels firm when pressed, about 20-25 minutes. The cornbread continues to dry out after you remove it from the oven, so I take it out before it begins to brown (usually 18 minutes or so in my oven).

I serve it with lots of butter. It is a heart attack waiting to happen, but hey--it's a whole grain, and the beans are healthy.

Posted by: purple hull lover | September 18, 2007 10:52 PM

What happened. I put my purple hull beans in the crock pot for 3 hours on low, while I went to church. I was told at the market to cook them this way. Now they are firm (hard) and chewy. Can someone tell me how to cook them so they are tender?

Posted by: Rhonda | November 18, 2007 2:03 PM

i moved to so.ca. 10 yrs. ago and i have searched high & low for purple hull and crowder peas. i've asked at the farmer's markets and they look at me like a person from outer space, a what?, they ask. so i try my best to explain to them what they are and the appearance. NEVER heard of them. i live in santa monica, ca., and i would love for someone to contact me at the address below, to let me know how and where is the nearest place i can purchase the peas. i can't travel but home to purchase and i don't have anyone to send them to me. your response would really be helpful for a homesick person for southern cooked meals.

thank you,
jaugust02@hotmail.com

Posted by: Jae | December 7, 2007 7:28 PM

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