Embrace summer peas for food, soil repair

When most people think of peas, they typically conjure up the image of the round, grass-green peas that rolled around on their childhood plates, occasionally mixed in with other vegetables such as corn and carrots. Or, perhaps the snow pea, a staple of stir-fry recipes, comes to mind. These pea varieties are eaten in the springtime, as they are a cool-season vegetable.

However, there is another pea — the Southern pea or field pea — that is ideal for growing in the Central Texas summertime heat. Although it is called a pea, this protein-rich legume is actually a bean. The term “field” pea comes from being grown in fields by farmers to return nitrogen back into the soil, like all legumes do. Southern peas have been cultivated in the South for more than 300 years. Originating in India, these peas were brought to the Southern states by African slaves. This humble, hardy vegetable served the critical role of subsistence food for both people and livestock long before it gained its notoriety in Southern recipes.

Common varieties of the Southern pea include black-eyed peas, crowder peas, cream peas, and cowpeas — some of which are used in traditional Southern recipes such as Hoppin’ John. There are several interesting varieties that can be planted in Central Texas, including red ripper, zipper, rucker, stick up, old timer, turkey craw, whippoorwill, purple hull, pinkeye, crowder, wash day, rattlesnake, iron clay, bird, cow, colossus, Hercules, Mississippi silver, shanty and polecat.

No matter which one you choose, a successful growing season will require the following steps:

Plant Southern peas throughout April to June when both days and nights are consistently warm (at least 60 degrees Fahrenheit) for 60 days to 90 days. Typically, this will occur three to four weeks after the last frost date.

Choose a location with well-drained soil in full sun, and add compost to the bed (although these peas grow remarkably well even in poor soil). Sow seeds 1 inch deep and 2 inches apart in rows that are 3 inches apart. When plants have germinated and are several inches tall, thin them to 4 inches apart. Some varieties are short, bushy types, while others can grow vertically using stakes, trellises or wire supports strung between stakes. It is best to install the vertical support at the time of planting the seeds.

Keep the soil consistently moist, watering at the base of the plant. Plant alongside beans, corn and cucumbers, but avoid planting near garlic, onions or potatoes.

Southern peas also can be grown as a cover crop over the summer to return nitrogen into the soil of a bed that lays fallow. In this case, let the plants cover the garden area to help suppress weeds, and when it is time for fall planting, turn over the soil using a shovel or tiller to incorporate the green plants into the soil as “green manure.” Before the plants flower and produce seeds, dig the plants directly into the soil to ensure faster decomposition and minimize loss of nitrogen into the atmosphere.

For using fresh peas, harvest in 60-70 days when seeds have filled the green pods but before they have hardened. For dried use, harvest the dried pods in 90 days and be sure to harvest before a rain, or else the seeds will mold. Fresh Southern peas can be stored unshelled in the refrigerator for one to two weeks. Fresh peas also can be blanched, cooled in an ice water bath and stored in the freezer for up to one year. Dried shelled Southern peas can be stored in a cool, dry place for 10 to 12 months.

Panzanella Salad

4 cups whole wheat bread, cut or torn into 1-inch pieces (see note)

¼ cup plus 3 Tbsp. olive oil, divided

3 cups butternut squash, peeled and cut into 1-inch cubes

1 cup black-eyed peas, cooked

½ cup fresh basil, finely chopped

2 Tbsp. apple cider vinegar

1 Tbsp. honey

Salt and pepper (optional)

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Place bread pieces in a bowl. Drizzle 2 tablespoons of olive oil over bread and toss to coat.

Spread bread pieces on a cookie sheet in a single layer. Bake for 5 to 10 minutes, until lightly toasted. Allow to cool.

Place butternut squash cubes in casserole pan. Drizzle 1 tablespoon of oil over squash and toss to coat. Roast squash for about 15 minutes, until cooked through and slightly browned on edges.

Combine the vinegar and honey in bowl; whisk in ¼ cup olive oil.

Combine toasted bread, squash, black-eyed peas and basil in large bowl. Pour dressing over salad and gently toss.

Add a pinch of salt and pepper if desired.

Allow salad to stand for about 20 minutes before serving.

Note: Stale bread or croutons can be used instead of the whole wheat bread. If you do use one of these, skip toasting bread and start by cooking the squash.

Serves 8.

— The Happy Kitchen

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