My mother came to visit recently and brought me a late birthday present: two quart-size bags of fresh black-eyed peas.
If you aren't from the South, you might not get what a delicacy these are. Just the smell of them boiling in the pot on the stove was enough to make my mouth water.
Growing up in Arkansas, I grew to love "purple hulls," but my very favorite was a tiny, white pea that my grandmother grew. They were Texas cream peas and had a delicate savory flavor that really needed no seasoning beyond a little salt.
In Beans & Field Peas, a new Savor the South cookbook coming in September from University of North Carolina Press, Sandra A. Gutierrez describes discovering the Southern tradition of eating the "pot likker" created by the beans with corn bread and buttermilk.
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She had grown up in Latin America eating the caldos or broth from black beans with toasted croutons.
"The peas that you grow up with are the ones that are closest to your heart," Gutierrez said. But it can be hard to find the ones you remember in other places.
Her resource for special things like yellow-eye beans is Steve Sando's Rancho Gordo, a Napa, Calif., farm that sells heirloom beans online and is known for rescuing varieties.
"It's so great that farmers are bringing all these heirloom seeds back," Gutierrez said. "We have finally become reconnected with the roots of our meals again. ... We had gone very far away, but now we're back to the food that is ours."
Fresh peas are terrific when you can get them, but dried peas are great, too, Gutierrez said.
"Dried black-eyed peas are fantastic, and I love them because you can keep them for months and months," she said. She prefers dried peas over canned because "they stay very flavorful and retain their texture, and will hold up for salad."
Her book has loads of recipes for a range of dishes from Southern classics, new Southern cuisine and international dishes. One that caught my eye was pink-eyed peas, corn, tomato and bacon salad, which combines cooked peas with some of summer's best flavors. Or the purple-hull salad with bacon vinaigrette, which dresses the peas with a vinaigrette of bacon drippings, vinegar, sorghum and hot sauce.
But don't overlook the broth, which is delicious on its own.
"If you have some nice pork like fat back or bacon or even smoked turkey wing for added flavor in your likker, that's all it needs to cook," Gutierrez said.
One important tip: Scoop out the foam that comes out to the top the first 10 minutes or so of cooking peas or beans.
"That's actually important," she said. "It removes impurities and bitterness, and then your likker is really smooth and has a lot of flavor."
Pork is a frequent accompaniment to field peas; if you're looking for extra flavor you can sauté the raw fresh peas in a little bacon grease before you boil them.
But they don't really need it; these little beauties are so flavorful they can stand alone. In fact, although many of the recipes in Gutierrez' book look great, I probably never will get beyond the plain cooked peas because they taste so good.
That's partly a function of rarity: where I grew up in western Arkansas they were common, but in Kentucky they aren't so easy to come by, at least not in their farm-fresh form.
Kentucky isn't hot and dry enough to grow them in abundance consistently, said Adrienne Eggum of Woodford County. She and her husband, Jim, grow them at their Stonehedge Farm, but it's tough. "Sometimes you'll only get a few peas in the pod," she said.
Elmwood Stock Farm in Georgetown also grows them but won't have any until late fall.
"With all the rains and flooding, we were unable to plant fall beans and peas on schedule," said Ann Stone. "We did finally get them out, but late, and we are hoping to get a crop before frost comes, but we'll have to see."
If you want to try growing them yourself next year, take a look at Baker Creek Seeds. It offers almost three dozen heirloom cowpeas, including the Mitchell Family cream pea, a white pea that might have originated in Kentucky or Tennessee before migrating west with the Mitchells to Missouri in the mid-19th century.
Randel Agrella, who contracts seed producers for Baker Creek, said cowpeas or field peas really love heat.
"They used to be extremely popular in days before industrial farming," he said. When settlers would homestead as they moved west, one of the first crops they would plant would be cowpeas because they are fast-growing and reliable.
"Cowpeas were survival food back in the early days," he said.
Another variety he recommends for this region: the red-eye cow pea, which is a historic Kentucky variety.
According to Baker Creek's site, "foundation seed was supplied by Rick Ashby of the Bowling Green area, who received them from Arnold and Elisha Bush, who in turn had the seeds from Arnold's father."
If you have limited space, stick with a bush variety like Old Time Purple Hull or Purple Hull Pinkeye, which don't "run," or send out long vines.
While cowpeas aren't grown much commercially, Agrells said, "I hate to see home gardeners miss out because we've always found it to be an extremely reliable."