We had a barbecue at work on Thursday, and I volunteered to bring black eye peas because traditional southern food and any sort of outdoor cooking are interchangeable in my head. (I think this is because the only time we ever ate traditional southern food when I was a kid is when we were grilling out).
The #1 and # 2 comments I got from people munching on them were, respectively:
“Wow! I’ve never had black eye peas before,”
“Don’t you have to cook these with ham or bacon or lard or something?”
#1 was suprising. Not a single person in my 20-person office had ever tasted a black eye pea. They all regarded it as some bizarre regional delicacy, like scrapple. But you can find black eye peas right between the navy and kidney beans on the shelf at every single grocery store in America. And this is the most competitive city in the whole wide world, so you would at least expect people to bluff and say they’d had them (prepared “authentically,” no doubt. God forbid you attempt to describe any sort of experience here without using that pompous qualifier). And, unlike scrapple, black eye peas are delicious.
Which segues us into less-surprising comment #2. People have gotten it in their heads that BEP must be prepared the same way that collard greens are: boil forever, lots of pig carcass, lots of hot sauce. This is absolutely the only way to make collards palatable, but black eye peas actually have a wonderful savory, meaty flavor of their own. You really can just straight cook them with no other flavoring than salt. Overcooking, however, them saps this flavor and turns them into mush.
But as long as you don’t over or undercook, there’s really no wrong way to make these. They’re quick and easy, and they absorb perfectly almost any flavoring you cook them with.
Here’s how I generally prepare them. You can substitute any of the spices to suit your taste.
1 lb bag dried black eye peas, soaked overnight, strained, and rinsed
7 cups water
2 cubes vegetable bullion
2 jalapeno peppers, seeded and chopped into quarters
1 medium sweet onion, finely chopped
1 clove garlic, chopped in half
2 large sprigs parsley, finely chopped
salt & pepper to taste
Place water, peas, and onion in medium-sized stock pot. Heat to a simmer over medium-low heat.
Add bullion, peppers, and garlic. Stir vigorously until bullion has dissolved.
Place lid on pot. After one hour, add parsley, replace lid, and allow to simmer for another half hour.
Starting at the hour-and-a-half mark, sample the peas every 5 minutes until they are ready. This part is crucial. These go from undercooked and chalky to overcooked and mushy pretty quick, so you need to take them off the heat right when they hit the sweet spot. The skin around the pea should ideally be right at the point of rupturing.
Drain all but enough liquid to almost cover peas. Add salt & pepper (you shouldn’t need too much). Pick out jalapeno and garlic pieces with tongs. (It’s a little tedious to dig through for the garlic, but worth it if you hate biting into a piece of straight-up garlic).
Serve with corn, something curciferous, and bread.