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Purple hull peas are a lesser known legume at Southern Illinois farmers markets
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Purple hull peas are a lesser known legume at Southern Illinois farmers markets

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The deep purple-burgundy color of the dried hull are what give purple hull peas their common name. A subspecies of the cowpea, purple hull peas have a buttery, earthy flavor and can be used much in the same manner as any other bean.

They are similar in shape and size to the black-eyed pea, but have a pink or purple spot. As a result, they are sometimes called pink-eyed peas. They are considered a specialty crop in Illinois and can be found at local farmers markets beginning in mid-summer.

Domesticated in Africa, cowpeas were first introduced to the United States in the 18th century as forage for livestock. Their use as an economical feed for cattle is likely where the cowpea found its name. Cowpeas, including purple hull peas, gained popularity once farmers realized the crop replenished nutrients in soil and human consumption of this Southern staple grew.

Cooking and storing purple hull peas

Like most legumes, the purple hull pea is cooked — typically boiled — in order to be edible. They are commonly added to soups, stews, salads, and casseroles. Fresh pink-eyed peas purchased from your farmers market will cook quickly in comparison to dried store-bought versions and require no soaking.

To boil fresh pink-eyed peas, place them in a soup pot with a ham hock and onion then cover them with salted water. Bring the water to a boil, then back the heat to a simmer. The peas will be tender enough to eat in about 30 minutes. These can be drained and used in salads or other recipes. To give the broth — or pot likker — time to grow rich and full of flavor, continue cooking another hour to an hour and a half.

Fresh cowpeas can be frozen for up to nine months before the quality begins to deteriorate. Blanch them in boiling water for about two minutes, then shock them in an ice bath to stop the cooking. Drain the peas, then package them in good quality freezer bags or containers. You can also freeze fully cooked peas by placing them directly into freezer containers.

Be sure to label your containers so you know if the contents are fresh or fully cooked. Include the date on your label so you know how old they are.

Tradition and folklore

In many homes, pink- or black-eyed peas are often served for dinner on New Year’s Day to bring good luck and health in the year ahead. Greens, carrots, cornbread and ham are often part of this same celebratory dinner.

While this tradition is rooted in Southern food heritage, it is prevalent throughout the nation, including right here in Southern Illinois. Our own local traditions are likely a result of migration patterns of our early settlers as they moved across the upper Southern states and into Southern Illinois.

Niki Davis is the creator of Rooted in Foods food heritage blog. You can find her at www.rootedinfoods.com.

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