Why Cowpeas Have a Black Eye

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I am a recent cowpea convert. I didn’t plan on growing cowpeas this past summer, but a friend sent me a few packages of heirloom seeds. I fell in love with them, both for their vigor in the garden and their versatility in the kitchen.

Why did it take me so long to discover cowpeas? Black-eyed peas… that’s why.

“Wait,” everyone says. “Aren’t cowpeas and black-eyed peas the same?”

Black-eyed peas are just one of many types of cowpea. There are pink-eyed, brown-eyed, and green-eyed cowpeas, as well as those without an “eye.” There are cream peas that produce a beautiful light broth when cooked, rather than the dark “pot liquor” of most varieties. There are dainty lady cowpeas, and blocky crowder cowpeas, so-called because they completely fill the pods and crowd each other into cowpea cubes. There are beautifully speckled whippoorwill cowpeas, and multicolor calico cowpeas.

There are great-tasting cowpeas, and black-eyed peas.

I shouldn’t be so hard on black-eyed peas. They’re fine if you dress them up real nice in a Hoppin’ John (with rice, tomatoes, onion, and cheese), but black-eyed peas just can’t make it by themselves. They’re a little mealy, and rather bland in flavor. Not so with the other varieties of cowpeas – these peas stand alone.

Heigh-ho, the derry-o, the peas stand alone! Cowpeas in a rich “pot liquor” are the main course, along with (clockwise from left) fried quail, gluten free corn muffins, cooked greens (michihili cabbage) and stewed tomatoes.

Unfortunately, most people have never even heard of, let alone grown, these other types of cowpeas. My local grocery store carries only black-eyed peas. And you won’t find cowpeas (other than black-eyed peas) in your commercial seed catalogs like Burpee, either. If all people know about cowpeas is black-eyed peas, then I can understand why there aren’t more cowpeas growing in gardens.

Many folks around my part of the world have never tasted fresh cowpeas either. Fresh cowpeas have a completely different flavor – somewhat grassy (in a good way!) and bright. The young “snaps,” too immature for hulling, are frequently thrown in with fresh peas for interest. I imagine folks down in the deep South will snicker when they read this, but I’ve cooked those snaps alone for my family before. The girls gobbled them up, thinking they were green beans (and they know their beans!). I’ve also braised them in a cast iron skillet with olive oil, garlic, and cracked red pepper… delicious!

An Easy to Grow Bean

That’s right… cowpeas are not really peas, but a type of bean. Also known as field peas, these peas don’t require cool temperatures like their shelling and snap pea cousins. In fact, they thrive in heat.

If you have a brown thumb, try growing cowpeas – they weather most any type of stress. Whereas the other garden beans dried up and dropped their flowers during this summer’s drought, my cowpeas chugged right along. Disease? Nothing touched them. Pests? Nuh-uh. When my Kentucky Wonder pole beans were getting chewed up by Mexican bean beetles and a sneaky groundhog, the cowpeas filled right in. From just two 10 ft rows of cowpeas, I harvested a little over 7 lbs of dried beans for the pantry (and remember, I was eating them fresh too, so they produced much more!).

Cowpeas at the start of the growing season. Note that the nearby corn has been watered, as we were in the midst of a drought, but no need to water the cowpeas. The sweet potatoes (top left) had been nibbled down by a pesky groundhog, which left the cowpeas untouched.

Some types of cowpeas can be rather invasive in small spaces, however. Whereas the Pinkeye Purple Hull cowpeas I grew maintained a bush-like habit, the Red Bisbee cowpeas crawled all over the place, spreading at least 12 feet into and along an adjacent bed. I don’t mind a little disorganization in my garden, though… and the cowpeas rewarded me for it.

Spend any time in the heirloom gardening scene, and you’ll meet people that get giddy talking about cowpeas. This past fall, I attended a seed-swap at the Best family farm and scored Lady, Big Red Ripper, Jacob Day, and Washday cowpeas. A few weeks later, a friend I made at the swap sent me a surprise cowpea delivery: Pigott Family cowpeas. This speckled cowpea is supposed to be the best fresh-eating cowpea around. Thanks to Juanita, I’ll be able to find out if that’s true next summer.

Preserving Cowpeas

Fresh, tender cowpeas, along with snaps, store best in the freezer. Blanch cowpeas for 2 minutes in rapidly boiling water, chill immediately, and freeze.

I allow my cowpeas to dry on the vines, harvesting them once the pods have changed color. Mature cowpea hulls will be either tan or purple, depending on the variety. If the pods or beans are not completely dry, I simply spread them out on newspaper and put them under a fan for a few days.

Top, Red Bisbee cowpea pods are large and turn tan when mature. Bottom, Pinkeye Purple Hull cowpeas are relatively short with purple pods. Inset, Red Bisbee and Pinkeye Purple Hull (left and right, respectively).

So this winter, as you curl up in front of the fire with your favorite seed catalogs, don’t skip past the cowpeas. And if you are lucky enough to have grown cowpeas this past year, yet are wondering how to prepare your dried beans, get a heavy-bottomed pot and your cornbread skillet. Get ready for some naturally gluten free food that will fill up your belly and warm your soul.

Cowpeas with pancetta and herbs
Although cowpeas are traditionally seasoned with salt pork, I prefer the flavor and simplicity of diced pancetta. Both salt pork and pancetta are types of cured pork belly.
Recipe type: Main

  • 1 lb dried cowpeas (red cowpeas, such as Red Bisbee or Red Ripper, preferred)
  • 5 oz diced pancetta (I use Busetto Foods, which is gluten free and available diced)
  • ¼ cup chopped fresh parsley
  • 2 sprigs fresh thyme

  1. Soak cowpeas at least 4 hours in about 8 cups water. Drain water and rinse well.
  2. Add cowpeas, pancetta, and fresh herbs to a heavy-bottomed pot. Add water to cover, plus an additional inch of water on top. Bring to a boil.
  3. Once cowpeas begin boiling, cover and reduce to low heat. Simmer cowpeas for 45 minutes to an hour, until desired tenderness is reached. Season to taste.

If desired, top beans with onions, tomatoes, and fresh parsley. Cooked greens and gluten free cornbread or corn muffins make excellent companions.


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