Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Pass the Peas, Please

A couple of months ago I posted about my learning to eat and then to cook asparagus, a vegetable that I was not familiar with growing up. Today's post is about a vegetable that this Southern girl grew up with; one that that my parents and grandparents and probably even their parents' parents grew and cooked and ate, namely, the purple hull pea.

These may look like a green version of black-eyed peas, and while I'm sure they're related, fresh purple hull peas, to me, taste nothing like black eyes. For one thing, black-eyes are mostly eaten dried, then soaked and cooked, while purple hull peas are eaten fresh or frozen from fresh, not dried.

My family grows what's called pink-eye purple hulls. My dad's favorite variety, the Mississippi Pink-Eye, is one that hasn't been available commercially for a couple of years, so he's compromised by growing a different variety of pink-eyed purple hulls, known, I think, by the name "Top-pick".

I have memories in childhood of getting up in the dark and riding in my Papa's pick-up truck while my mom and Nanny (grandmother) rode in the car, to a farm where you paid a little bit of nothing to pick your own peas. (In later years I remember them growing their own, so I'm not sure why we went somepalce else that year to pick peas.) It was wet, nasty work--you had to pick early, when the dew was still on the ground, before it got too hot. It was fun for about the first five or ten minutes, but once the sun came up, it got old fast. (Where were the child-labor laws when we needed them??)

Once we had picked our bushel baskets full, we took them home and then the fun part begun--shelling all those peas by hand. I can remember shelling till my fingers got sore--and with purple-hulls, they get black and purple stained, too. Nobody could out-shell my Nanny-she loved it and was faster than anybody else I knew. In the early days, we sat outside in lawn chairs under the tree, surrounded by the bushel baskets of picked peas, dishpans full of shelled peas, and brown paper bags of pea hulls--ready for daddy or papa to throw over the fence to the cows. It was fun, really, everyone sitting around and talking and shelling peas. To this day I love running my hands through dishpans full of raw, uncooked peas, they feel so smooth and cool, I used to imagine it was treasure as I picked up handfuls and let them run through my fingers back into the dishpan. Nowadays my parents have a pea-sheller; two people can shell a bushel of peas faster than we could have even imagined back then.

I'm not sure how much help we kids really were, or if it offset the amount of whining I'm sure we did, but once the shelling was done, we were off the hook. The women of the family, though, still had hours more of blanching and shocking and bagging for the freezer before they were done--usually long after the rest of us were in bed. It was a right of passage for us girls to be allowed to help--first with the bagging, later with the actual blanching (immersing in boiling water for a few minutes) and shocking (immersing then into ice water to stop the cooking process), getting them ready for the bagging process. Zipper topped freezer bags are a wonderful invention, but there was a technique to twisting those little paper-(and later plastic) coated wire twisty ties to the top of the bags so that they held tight without slipping off!

The results, though, brought back the taste of summer every time our mom's and grandma's cooked up a pot of peas. A little bit of bacon or at least bacon grease, some salt and pepper, that was all that was needed to cook the best peas.

These days I do mine a bit different, but they still have the same great taste. Once I put my still frozen peas in the pot and add water, I add dried onion flakes, a teaspoon or two of chicken stock paste, and my favorite all purpose seasoning, Tony Chachere's (Tony Chay Chay's to my family).

Bring everything to a boil, breaking apart the peas as they thaw. Turn down to medium or medium high, and cook until the peas are done, at least 45 minutes, depending on the quantity of peas.
I've tried commercial frozen so-called "purple hull peas", and to me, they taste like black eyes. Personally, I like dry black eyes, but not fresh ones. I have yet to find a commercially frozen purple hull peas that taste like the purple hulls I know and love.

Some people freeze their purple hull peas without blanching first--I've never cooked peas done this way, but I know they take longer to cook. Conversely, some people basically cook their fresh peas almost to done before freezing, so they take a much shorter time to finish.

In my family, we put up vegetables in the freezer. There are different techniques for vegetables canned in jars; I have no experience cooking peas put up this way, so if you try canned peas, you're on your own!

What's your favorite home grown vegetable?

For more recipes and links, see Tasty Tuesday at Balancing Beauty and Bedlam, and Tempt My Tummy Tuesday at Blessed with Grace.

As always, good cooking, and good eating!


  1. Yep, every Southern girl should know how to cook purple hulled peas. Great post!

  2. You keep me hopping. Being a transplant to the South, I have never even heard of purple hulled peas. Can you believe it? And I've lived here for 13 years. I have been missing out. Thanks for always giving me a great tutorial on how this Southern woman should cook. :)

  3. What, no purple hull peas? Girlfriend, you are missing out on a treat!

  4. We love purple hull peas! I had never shelled them til I married my husband. We're both from down south, but my family didn't cook fresh vegetables. My husband grew up on them. They are absolutely my favorite vegetable now. I put beef buillion cubes in our's and right before they are done cooking, I add a tsp or so of sugar. My husband's grandmother taught me the sugar trick.

  5. I'll have to try the sugar trick and see if how my family reacts!

  6. I grew up on Purple Hull Peas. I enjoy growing them in my garden but I confess I've never shelled a whole bushel at one sitting. Someday I'll grow enough to last us through the winter. As it is we eat most of what I grow long before it makes it to the freezer. I have one little bag left that I'm saving for a special occasion. Like the day I can't stand it anymore and I have to have some. LOL.

  7. I just read this...and had to look twice to see if my sister had written it. Your description of picking and shelling peas was practically identical to my childhood! Those stupid pkastic bags and ties were a pain. But man what good eats we had all year long! And I, too, love running my hands through fresh shelled peas! Thanks for stirring a wonderful, childhood memory!

  8. Hi, I adore pink eyed purple hull field peas. I first heard of them, through my Sister's husband from Mississippi. They are so delicious. My daughter loves p.e.p.h. peas. ps I season with Tony Chachere's seasoning, too. thanks for your blanching blog post. I cannot find the peas here, in Tennessee. I am from central Louisiana and never had any trouble finding the purple hull peas in Baton Rouge. It makes me so sad.

    1. If you live in the Memphis area go to the Agri Center in Germantown. I just bought a bushel there.

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