Fresh field peas, aka cow peas, are a quintessential Southern staple and comfort food. These tender gems make an appearance at Farm Markets from mid-summer through early fall. I do not remember when I first tasted them, but am sure it was after I moved to Atlanta over 10 years ago. I now look forward to buying my first peas of the season at the Rosebank farm stand when we take our annual pilgrimage to Kiawah Island in South Carolina.
Field peas were traditionally eaten by the poor because they are easy to grow and yield a prolific bounty throughout the growing season. All stages of the pea can be eaten; including immature spring peas still in the pod (called snaps), tender shelled summer peas and mature peas dried for winter. They are actually classified as a bean and were originally grown in Africa and brought to America during colonial times. Their name comes from the practice of letting cows graze on the peas and vines left in the field after the crop was gathered for humans.
Fortunately field peas are still treasured in the South and a range of varieties can be found at most Farmer’s Markets and even some supermarkets. There are many regional varieties and names for field peas; each with a slightly different look and taste. Common pea varieties I have seen in Georgia and South Carolina include: crowder, lady cream, white acre, zipper, dixie-lee, pink-eyed purple hull and pink-eyed.
I buy fresh field peas whenever I can and cook them soon after as they do not keep well. All varieties are sweet smelling when fresh so walk away if they have an off smell of any sort when you buy them or use them. Hopefully, you will never have the sensory displeasure of encountering field peas gone bad.
This particular recipe was inspired by a dish I ate at Ink & Elm, a short lived but impressive Atlanta restaurant. When I eat out I often order a handful of sides as my meal, so I tend to judge restaurants on how they handle seasonal vegetables. Ink & Elm treated produce with reverence and their vegetables were often both comforting and intriguing.
One night when I tasted their pink-eyed peas swimming in a piquant mustardy broth I seriously may have clapped my hands in delight or made a happy noise. I also grilled my server about what flavors I tasted in the dish. She indulged me by giving a brief description of the most obvious flavors. I am sure she had a chuckle back in the kitchen at how impassioned I became over a bowl of mustardy field peas.
At home I was inspired to figure out how to enhance my favorite recipe for field peas to profile the flavor of mustard in the broth. By adding mustard seeds and dried ground mustard the character of the mustard stood out without the additional flavors found in prepared mustards.
I routinely give my teenage son a hard time for dousing most of his food with mustard. This mustard infused pink-eyed pea recipe somehow connects me to him in an ever so small way as it helps me understand how mustard can become a go-to flavor enhancer.
Mustard Infused Pink-eyed Peas
1/4 cup pancetta or thick cut country bacon
diced 1 medium Vidalia or other sweet onion, chopped (~1 ½ cup)
1/2 red bell pepper, chopped (~1/2 cup)
1 tsp salt
1/4 tsp fresh ground pepper
Pinch red pepper flakes
3 cloves garlic, minced (2 tsp)
2 cups fresh pink-eyed or available field peas
1/2 cup dry white wine (I like the flavor Sauvignon Blanc adds)
3 cups chicken stock
1 tsp sugar
1 Tbs fresh thyme leaves
1 tsp dried mustard
3/4 tsp yellow or brown mustard seeds
2 tsp apple cider vinegar
4 scallions, chopped (1/4 cup)
1/4 cup parsley leaves, chopped
2 Tbs. butter
- In a medium sauce pan, cook pancetta over medium heat until browned, about 5 minutes
- Add onions, bell pepper, salt, pepper, and red pepper flakes. Cook until onion is soft and translucent, about 5-7 minutes.
- Add garlic and cook until fragrant, about 1 minute
- Add white wine and reduce by half.
- Add stock, sugar, thyme, mustards, and peas. Simmer on low-medium heat for 40 minutes until peas are tender yet still hold their shape.
- Add vinegar, scallion, parsley, and butter. Cook 1 minute to meld favors.
- Season to taste with salt and pepper.
- To get your Southern on, season liberally with Tabasco and serve over grits or rice with cornbread or biscuits. I may get kicked out of the South for suggesting you could also eat these peas like I typically do – in a bowl with a buttered crusty baguette or country bread to sop up the flavorful broth.
- Vegetarian Option: Omit the pancetta or bacon, sauté the onion and bell pepper in grape seed or canola oil, and add water instead of chicken stock. Adding liquid smoke is a great cheater way to include the smoky note bacon would bring to the peas. Use sparingly by adding a few drops at a time to taste. When buying liquid smoke, try to find a brand which only lists smoke and water as ingredients, such as Wrights. A big pinch of sweet smoked paprika is another way to add smokiness to vegetarian field peas.