Bowl of beans is great way to ward off chill

Cowboy caviar is a mix of black-eyed peas, tomatoes, red and green onions, and corn. BY JACK CLEMONS
March 4, 2013

For the past few weeks I’ve been craving beans - chili, hummus, black bean soup - and I’m trying to figure out why. Anecdotally, food cravings are said to be a signal from your body that you’re lacking certain vitamins or minerals. If that’s the case here, I must be hungry for fiber and low-fat protein (along with a number of important trace minerals).

No surprise with this conclusion; these are dietary essentials for all of us. Maybe the answer has less to do with nutrition and more to do with comfort. Perhaps I’ve just been craving a certain rich mouthfeel or spicy flavors. In the middle of February, a hearty bowl of beans is a great way to ward off the winter chill. Now that I’ve solved that riddle, we can explore another mystery: why are so many varieties of beans called peas?

The answer is found in the difference between botanical classifications and common names. Peas are the familiar round seeds that grow in pods; pea plants are the name we give to the vines grown for these edible seeds. Because so many beans are roundish, we’ve come to call them peas - think chickpeas and cream peas. This large family of legumes includes pinto beans, kidney beans, navy beans and the numerous species of beans known as Southern peas.

Brought to North America from Africa, these beans have been a dietary staple in this country since the 1600s, most notably black-eyed peas. During the Civil War, when Sherman’s troops made their destructive march, they ignored what were called the field peas or cowpeas, thinking they were only livestock feed. They didn’t realize they’d left behind a valuable food source for the beleaguered residents of the Confederacy, which gave rise to the legend that black-eyed peas saved the South.

Black-eyed peas (the food, not the band) have a unique appearance: light tan in color with a black patch in the center (when you see them you’ll understand why my mom calls them one-eyed peas). Before you can use them in a recipe, dried beans need to be soaked for several hours, or boiled for a few minutes and soaked for at least an hour. The canned version often has a slightly metallic hint, which can be eliminated with enough seasoning.

Typically, black-eyed peas are simmered with onions and smoked pork to bring out their sweet flavor and creamy texture. I’ve included a soup recipe that features bacon instead of a ham hock and can be thickened by mashing some of the peas into the broth. For the dish in the photo, black-eyed peas were tossed with a deconstructed salsa: onions, tomato, corn and spices. This tasty side dish or dip served with corn chips is often called cowboy caviar.

The final recipe is the traditional New Year’s Day good luck dish called Hoppin’ John. Black-eyed peas - said to represent coins or pennies - are served with golden cornbread and collard greens, the color of money. Lucky for us that Sherman didn’t know peas from beans.

Black-Eyed Pea Soup

12 oz black-eyed peas
3 slices bacon
1 T olive oil
1 chopped onion
1 chopped celery stalk
1 diced carrot
1 minced garlic clove
1 t fresh thyme
3 C chicken broth
1/2 C white wine
1 bay leaf

Soak dried black-eyed peas in water for at least six hours; drain before using. Cook bacon until almost crisp in a heavy soup pot. Remove to paper towels to drain. Reduce heat to low and add onion, celery and carrot. Sauté vegetables until softened, about 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add garlic and thyme and cook, stirring constantly, until fragrant, about one minute. Add broth and wine to pot, scraping up any browned bits. Add bay leaf and black-eyed peas to pot; raise heat to medium high. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to low; cover and simmer soup until beans are tender, about 25 minutes. Optional: to thicken soup, use a potato masher to smash some of the black-eyed peas and stir to combine. Yield: 4 servings.

Black-Eyed Pea Salad

1 C black-eyed peas
2 T olive oil
1 T rice wine vinegar
1 T lime juice
2 t chili powder
1/2 t paprika
1/4 t nutmeg
1/4 t mustard powder
2 chopped Roma tomatoes
2 sliced green onions
1/2 chopped red onion
1 C sweet corn kernels
salt & pepper, to taste

Soak black-eyed peas in water for at least six hours; drain before using. Simmer black-eyed peas in water until barely soft, about 25 minutes; drain and set aside. In a serving bowl, whisk together oil, vinegar and lime juice; add seasonings and stir to combine. Add tomatoes, onions, corn and black-eyed peas; toss thoroughly to combine. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve chilled or at room temperature.

Hoppin’ John

2 T butter
1 diced onion
1 diced red bell pepper
2 chopped celery stalks
3 minced garlic cloves
1 lb sliced smoked sausage
5 C chicken broth
4 C soaked black-eyed peas*
salt & pepper, to taste
1/8 t cayenne pepper
2 T white vinegar
hot sauce, to taste
4 C cooked rice

*Soak black-eyed peas in water for at least six hours; drain before using. Melt butter in a large Dutch oven over medium. Stir in onion, pepper and celery. Cook until slightly softened, about 5 minutes. Add garlic and cook just until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add sausage and cook for about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Deglaze pan with chicken broth, scraping up any browned bits from the bottom. Stir in black-eyed peas, salt, pepper and cayenne. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat, cover and simmer for 30 minutes. Stir in vinegar and hot sauce (if desired) and serve over rice.