2006_8_GothamPeasFlash.jpgIn New York, “fresh peas” means the green kind—English, sugar snap, or snow—for which the prime season is spring. But down South, summer brings a whole other crop of legumes that are also called fresh peas (or shell peas). There are whippoorwills, zippers, and crowders; cream peas, butter peas, and lady peas (also known as purple-hull peas). Unlike other Southern specialties like grits and okra, these delicacies have yet to be discovered by chefs in this city. However, you can find purple-hull peas this time of year in certain small greengrocers that cater to Caribbean customers. In Harlem, Young Spring Farm carries them for $1.49 a pound (62 W. 125th Street between Lenox and Fifth). They pop up also in Flatbush at the shops along Church Avenue between Ocean Ave and E. 18th Street. On weekends in Bed-Stuy, you might spot them for sale from a vendor’s cardboard box on Fulton Street between Bedford and Franklin. Clearly, some people have quite a yen for these purple pods. Here they usually go under yet another name, “cow peas,” which points to their circuitous history.

Cow peas are native to west Africa, and they first came to the American South with the slave trade—via the West Indies. Initially, only slaves ate the peas, which served as a familiar nourishment. Others saw the peas as food suitable just for livestock (hence their name). Eventually though, everyone caught on to their virtues (especially during the Depression when peas provided a cheap source of protein).

You may wonder what’s the point of going to the trouble to shell these peas when black-eyed peas (their close cousin) are readily available canned and dried. Well, these shell peas taste a world apart, with a much more delicate flavor—less earthy, slightly nutty, and lightly sweet. Plus, they hold their texture better, which makes them perfect for salads, like the one below (adapted from Frank Stitt’s Southern Table). Seek out the humble shell pea, and you’ll be surprised at the rewards it affords.

Corn and Pea Salad

4 servings

1 cup shelled fresh cow peas (1/2 pound in the shell)
1 cup corn kernels (from 1 large cob)
1 small tomato, diced
1 tablespoon chopped parsley
½ red onion, chopped
½ tablespoon cider vinegar
2 tablespoons olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste

1. Bring 3 cups of water to a boil, add the peas, and lower heat to maintain a simmer. Cook just until tender, about 15 minutes. Remove peas with a slotted spoon. Reserve pea broth for another use (such as to make rice).
2. Bring 3 cups of water to a boil, add the corn kernels, and boil just until tender, about 3 minutes. Drain, rinse in cool water, and drain again.
3. Toss together the peas, corn, and all remaining ingredients in a large bowl until well combined. Cover and store in the refrigerator for at least an hour to let the flavors develop. Serve at room temperature.