Sunday, January 2, 2011

Cooking to Save the Planet: More on Black-Eyed Peas for New Year's Luck

This is a quick addendum to what I posted yesterday about black-eyed peas as a new year's luck talisman in the American South.  It occurs to me that I may have sounded coy, when I didn't mention any instructions for cooking the peas themselves.  I didn't do so, frankly, because I assume that anyone who eats this particular dish probably already knows how to cook black-eyed peas.

But on the off chance that some readers don't know how to cook this particular food item and would like to try it, I'll provide a few quick tips.  I should mention as a preface that some food historians seem to misunderstand something that's pretty standard and well-known in traditional Southern folkways, though this information is probably now being rapidly lost, as the fast-food burger culture supplants our longstanding (and far healthier) diet, which was based on the ample and widely varied vegetables that grow in our warm climate.

What's often misunderstood is this: black-eyed peas are one among many types of what we have traditionally called cowpeas or field peas, which are grown and eaten throughout the South.  For a number of years, I had an interesting conversation by mail with the noted American food historian Karen Hess about this, after I read something she had written in which she seemed to equate cowpeas or field peas exclusively with black-eyed peas.

As I pointed out to her, I grew up hearing these terms as generic terms for a whole range of beans (the term "pea" is misleading, since these are all beans and not peas at all), including my family's own particular favorites, crowder peas and purple hull peas.  In some parts of the South, a variety of field peas called lady peas is favored.  And there are several kinds of black-eyed peas, ranging in color and taste.

I always understood, growing up, that these legumes were called cowpeas or field peas because they were grown, in part, as fodder for animals, as well as for human consumption.  What I did not know as a child but have since learned is that these valuable beans all have an African provenance, and came into Southern U.S. culture from that continent that has given us so many other valuable culinary gifts, including peanuts, watermelons, okra, and countless others.

I'll also confess something here: I honestly don't really like black-eyed peas that much.  And my family didn't really eat them often at all, not nearly as often as we ate crowders and purple hulls--except for new year's day, when they're obligatory.  In fact, yesterday, when Steve and I went shopping to refresh our depleted larder after our two-week trip, we ran into my aunt at the store, desperately looking for black-eyed peas, which she had forgotten to buy.  And which she had to eat that day, or face a year of dismal luck.

And so when I do cook black-eyed peas, I employ a number of tricks to try to enhance their blandness and to distract me from their rather mealy texture, which is part of my objection to them.  These include adding several pods of red pepper to the stock or water in which they're cooked (and the red pepper pods are pretty standard in my family, no matter what beans we cook).  And yesterday, I added a chopped bell pepper, two chopped onions, and several toes of mashed garlic, as well as some parsley.

Unless you have access to fresh black-eyed peas (and you wouldn't find them fresh this time of the year in any part of the U.S.), you'll almost certainly be cooking dried ones.  (You might, of course, have grown or bought fresh ones in the summer and have popped them into the freezer.)  Whether you're using fresh or dried black-eyed peas, the following simple instructions apply, though the cooking time for fresh peas is shorter than for dried ones (but dried black-eyes cook quickly and will turn to mush if you're not careful).

Here's what I do, short and simple: "look" the black-eyed peas carefully, to remove any discolored ones or small stones or other detritus that has made its way into the package of dried peas.  Then wash the beans well.

Then put them into a pot with ample water or stock to cover them, keeping in mind that the peas will absorb liquid, and that you want some pot liquor to season the cornbread or rice with which you'll be eating the peas.  Add whatever seasonings you want--a bay leaf or two, chopped garlic, onion, celery, bell pepper, pods of red pepper or pinches of cayenne.  In New Orleans, cooks would almost certainly add some dried thyme and chopped parsley to all of the above, with more fresh parsley added right before the beans/peas are served. 

And salt and pepper to taste, of course.  The old rule of thumb was always to add the salt only when dried beans began to soften, but I read frequently now that this shibboleth, which assumes that the salt will toughen the beans if added too soon, is not really necessary.

I do put a chunk of ham into the pot, too, and as I do so, I keep in mind that ham is salty and I should hold off on too much salt until the ham has yielded its juices to the beans.  And that's it in a nutshell.  Bring the dish to a boil and then turn the heat to low and cover and simmer until the beans/peas are tender, tasting occasionally to see if you need to adjust the seasonings and also watching to see that the liquid doesn't get too low.

These instructions work for almost any dried bean you want to cook.  And, as the new year begins, please keep in mind that beans are exceptionally healthy, a wonderful source of protein especially when they're eaten with grains and/or dairy products, and a crop that doesn't strain the world ecologically nearly so much as the production of meat does--so that we all should be diminishing the amount of meat we consume routinely, if not foregoing meat altogether, and increasing the amount of pulses and grains we eat.

A reminder I'm issuing myself, so that I will continue, in 2011, to diminish my use of things like ham as even a seasoning for vegetables, and rely, instead, on olive oil, herbs, and seasoning vegetables like onion, celery, and bell pepper to enhance the flavor of legumes . . . .

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