Monday, September 21, 2009
Crowder Pea 'Stuff!'
This year, we're selling beautiful pints of in-the-hull crowder peas at our fall markets. These delicious members of the cowpea family are closely related to black-eyed peas, and are a key component of soul food. According to Wikipedia, they are one of the most important food crops in Africa, southern Europe, and Central and South America. Most people in Richmond seem not to have heard of them -- though those who do recognize crowder peas often remark that they ate them as children and adamantly request to buy a bushel or two.
Since market shoppers are often tentatively interested in the idea of trying something new, one of the most common questions I encounter in the crowder pea section is, "What do I do with these things?" I admit they can look intimidating, with long, thick, reddish-purple pods. Hulling them is the first step: sit on your front porch and lazily shell out your own bushel in the fading Virginia light, just like they did in the olden days. Watch out for worms -- you may find one nestled inside the pod, munching away at the side of a bean. Rinse the shelled peas when you're done, making sure to remove grit and dirt.
Now, get into the kitchen and make my delicious recipe for Crowder Pea 'Stuff.' Some explanation here: I have taken to bestowing the title of 'Stuff' on any unidentified combination (usually as a saute) of vegetables and beans, frequently using tomatoes as a base. Usually these are thicker than soups, curry-like in appearance but lacking curry spices, and wetter (usually with tomato juice) than a standard saute or stir-fry. 'Stuff' can be used in any context -- plain, served warm; topping pasta as a chunky sauce; atop rice, like a curry; sometimes (if it's not too wet) rolled up in a tortilla with salad greens and cheese; or even atop a toasted slice of crusty bread. It's weekday cooking at its best: improvisational, versatile, hearty and usually quite satisfying.
I based this 'Stuff' on a recipe I saw in Edible Chesapeake for vegetarian Hoppin' John -- a traditional southern dish consumed on New Year's Eve for good luck. That recipe purported to take hours to cook (lots of simmering and cooking down), but mine only takes about 45 minutes. When you're making my version, make sure to add lots of fresh thyme. It's an important aromatic and it made this dish shine, though the crowder peas are really the star of the show.
Crowder Pea 'Stuff'
2 cups fresh hulled crowder peas
4 cups water
1 bay leaf
1 large onion, chopped
10 heirloom tomatoes (any variety), skins removed, coarsely chopped
1 red pepper, diced
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 tbsp fresh thyme
red pepper flakes
salt and pepper
Place crowder peas, water and the bay leaf in a 4-quart saucepan. Bring to a boil then reduce to simmer and cook until peas are al-dente. This may only take 15-20 minutes -- it depends on the age of your peas. Check them periodically to make sure you don't overcook.
Meanwhile, saute onions on medium-high heat in olive oil, caramelizing them as much as possible before you start to get impatient. For me this is about 10 minutes. Now add the red peppers and saute for a few more minutes. Throw in the red pepper flakes too -- as many as you like to add a little kick to the flavor of the dish. Add tomatoes and continue to cook mixture on medium heat until crowder peas are ready.
Strain crowder peas and add them to the tomato mixture, along with the bay leaf and the garlic and thyme. Continue to cook on medium heat, stirring occasionally, until the tomatoes have reached the consistency you like. If you just cooked this for 10 minutes or so at this point, it would almost be a soup. I wanted it to be a bit thicker, so I continued for 15-20 minutes more. Tomatoes take a long time to reduce, so there was still some nice, flavorful tomato juice in this when I was done. Serve over brown rice.