Southerners anticipate the arrival of Southern peas and butter beans with eagerness. We love them more than we love our luggage. Southern peas are different than English (garden) peas. A notable difference is the season. English peas prefer cooler weather and Southern peas can take the heat. English peas are more delicate and only require a short cooking time. Some Southern pea varieties may need to be cooked up to two hours.
Southern pea varieties have creative and interesting-sounding names such as Cream 40, Ladyfingers, Zipper, Conch, Purple-hull, Queen Anne, Pink-eye, Texas Cream and Princess Ann. They vary in size, color and, to a lesser degree, flavor. Cooking them is simple. You wash them, cover with cold water, add some smoked meat for seasoning, such as bacon or ham hocks, add salt and pepper to taste and cook on medium heat until they reach the desired degree of doneness. Keep tasting for seasoning as they cook. A bowl of peas, some cornbread and a cold glass of milk or sweet tea makes a fine supper.
Butter beans can either be speckled, white or green. Outside of the South, butter beans may be known as limas. They are cooked in the same manner as Southern peas.
When the peas and butter beans are mature and ready to harvest, we say "they are in." To someone unfamiliar with our Southern vernacular, I've wondered if this conjured up an image of the peas and butter beans walking into your kitchen on their own. We only wish they could walk in on their own. They have to be picked manually. It's not an easy chore. We wish they would shell themselves, too. There are automatic shellers but they sometimes mash and bruise the peas and beans. Plus, you don't get snaps when you use the automatic shellers. Snaps are simply the immature pea pods that are snapped like green beans and added to the shelled peas. You don't put snaps in butterbeans. In my opinion, you need the snaps for the flavor. A pot of peas cooked without snaps isn't nearly as flavorful.
I picked peas and butter beans many times with my grandparents in Alabama. You didn't just pick a "mess," which is enough to feed your family for one meal. You picked enough to last your family a whole year. Then, the peas were shelled outside on the front porch by everyone you could possibly recruit. A "mess" of peas was always put on to cook for supper. The rest were blanched and put into bags for freezing. Some people would process their peas for storage by canning them.
In rural areas, you can sometimes find unshelled Southern peas and butter beans in the grocery store. I don't think I've ever seen them in the grocery stores around here. You have to buy them from farm stands or pick them.
Southern peas and butter beans are the stars of Southern Vegetable Soup, which is a great way to reuse leftover peas and beans. We can't bear to throw out one spoonful of these garden gems. I keep a bag in my freezer for any leftover Southern peas and butter beans. When I have about two pounds of any combination, I make Southern Vegetable Soup, which is something I have eaten my entire life. The vegetables are usually Southern peas, butterbeans, okra, potatoes, corn and tomatoes. It 's pure southerness in a bowl with a side of crackers or cornbread. I just made some this week. I wish I could share it with everybody.
Southern Vegetable Soup
The proportions of the vegetables aren't as important as the composition. This dish is a wonderful way to use leftover vegetables. That's the sole reason for its existence. I used ham hocks for seasoning this week. You can use any type of smoked meat. If you are using ham hocks, you will want to boil your ham hocks for at least an hour prior to adding your vegetables. If fresh peas and butter beans are used, you need to add them to your pot with your seasoning meat and cook them completely before adding the rest of the vegetables. If the peas and butter beans are leftovers, you can add all the vegetables at once.
4 ham hocks
1 pound Southern peas
1 pound butterbeans
1 pound sliced okra
1 pound cut corn (I prefer Silver Queen)
1 pound Yukon gold potatoes, cut in one-inch cubes
2 pounds tomatoes (fresh or canned diced with juice)
Salt and pepper to taste.
Place ham hocks in a stockpot and cover with water (approximately 3 quarts). Add salt and pepper. Bring to a boil, cover and cook on medium heat for about an hour or until the ham hocks are fork tender. If peas and butterbeans are fresh, place the peas in the pot with the ham hocks and cook until they peas are completely done. This may take up to two hours. The fresh butterbeans will need about 30 minutes to cook. If the peas and butterbeans are completely cooked, then all the vegetables may be added to the stockpot as soon as the hamhocks are tender. Taste for seasoning as the vegetables cook. Simmer for at least 30 minutes before serving.
Y'all come see us.