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Peas and Butterbeans Herald SC’s Vegetable Season

Libby Wiersema Libby Wiersema
Libby Wiersema lived in California and Alabama before settling in South Carolina 30 years ago, where she's covered the state's best culinary offerings and tells the stories behind the food.
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It's part of the summer soundtrack at farmers markets across South Carolina: the grind and shuffle of electric bean and pea shellers doing their thing. Churning up a racket that could be mistaken for heavy rain on a tin roof, these drum-like machines tumble their cargo of freshly picked butterbeans and peas, pummeling them with just enough gusto to pry open the pods and release the sweet, earthy seeds tucked inside.

Once sifted into a tray, they get a good hand-picking to remove any bits of hull and stem. Then, they are weighed and bagged and snapped up by eager customers for whom a bean-less, pea-less summer would be like sitting on the porch without a glass of sweet tea or a porch swing.

Butterbeans and Southern peas (brought to the South via the African slave trade) are staple crops here, with production sometimes struggling to meet the high demand. Think about it—what’s more Southern than a pot of swine-studded butterbeans simmering on the stove? It’s a dish that ranks right up there with buttermilk biscuits, cornbread, fried okra and grits. And, of course, they are good for you, too. A half-cup serving of butterbeans or peas is a good source of protein, calcium, iron, fiber, vitamins A and C and other nutrients.

South Carolinians love a variety of locally grown legumes, of which there are a lot of nuances. For example, butterbeans are small lima beans, while Southern peas, also called cowpeas, actually are beans. Confused? That’s understandable. Here’s a little information that will help you keep your butterbeans and peas sorted:

  •  Butterbeans are small and green and have a buttery texture when cooked.
  • Speckled butterbeans come in variegated hues of purple, green or brown and have a nut-like flavor when cooked.
  • Crowder peas are round and brown, creating a thick, dark potlikker when cooked.
  • Black-eyed peas sport the famous dark spot on their bellies and make an earthy, gravy-like potlikker.
  • Purple hull peas are a close relation to black-eyed peas, but are a bit lighter in color and taste.
  • Lady peas are prized for being tiny and sweet with a creamy texture.

Butterbeans and peas can be ready for harvest from early May through mid-August, depending on the weather and region. Snag a fresh-shelled bag (or two or three or four) at an area farmers market. If you won’t be cooking them right away, blanch them in boiling water, then drain and freeze in plastic freezer bags. If you’re ready to cook them, rinse and cover the butterbeans or peas in cold water in a heavy pot. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer with a little salt, pepper and bacon drippings, if you have them.

Lady peas, because of their more delicate flavor profile, make a delicious cold salad, too. Here’s a recipe to try that is bursting with herbs and other fresh flavors worthy of your summer table.

Lady Pea Salad
Ingredients
2 cups lady peas, cooked in lightly salted water for 15 to 20 minutes, or until tender
12 grape tomatoes, halved
1 stalk celery, thinly sliced
¼ red onion, thinly sliced
1 tablespoon fresh basil, chopped
1 tablespoon Italian parsley, chopped
1 teaspoon fresh dill, snipped
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon lemon zest
Salt and pepper to taste
Lemon wedges

Combine all ingredients, except lemon wedges, in your prettiest salad bowl. Gently toss to coat with dressing. Chill for 30 minutes or longer. Serve with lemon wedges.

Libby Wiersema
Libby Wiersema lived in California and Alabama before settling in South Carolina 30 years ago, where she's covered the state's best culinary offerings and tells the stories behind the food.