Peas, please

Call them the South's delicious little secret.

Lady, Pink-Eye, Zipper and Dixie Lee are just a few of the members of a large legume family variously known as Southern peas, cowpeas or field peas. Technically, they are beans, not peas, belonging to the genus Vigna unguiculata.

"Nothing says Southern more than these field peas," declares chef Kevin Johnson of Anson in downtown Charleston. Shelled peas have a loyal following in the South but are relatively unknown elsewhere, he notes.

While they can be in a dried form, such as the black-eyed ones commonly prepared for New Year's Day

dinner, these peas are considered best when they are fresh, early summer into fall.

"The difference between the two is astronomical," says Johnson.

Local chefs such as Johnson are seizing the moment, making use of peas on their summer menus in salads, ragouts, succotashes and other dishes. No fewer than 19 Charleston-area restaurants have placed orders to Limehouse Produce in recent weeks, according to owner Andrea Limehouse.

Fresh peas and butterbeans often can be found at farmers markets and roadside produce stands at this time of year as well.

Chris Stewart, an owner of the Glass Onion on Savannah Highway, uses any Southern pea he can get his hands on. "I like their earthiness and the creamy texture," he says.

His grandmother in Alabama cultivated his taste. She cooked peas from her garden in a ham-hock broth, which remains Stewart's favorite way of eating them, served with a slice of raw Vidalia onion on top.

Johnson also appreciates their versatility, as a player in hot or cold dishes, paired with meat, seafood or other vegetables, or standing alone. His favorite of the bunch is the crowder pea. "They take on flavors real well, and they hold up structurally," he says.

Johnson adds, "One other fun thing we started doing this year is flavoring them like baked beans with molasses, ketchup, dry mustard, bacon, etc. They are just phenomenal."

More delicate varieties, such as the White Acre, are especially good for salads, he adds.

These peas most likely traveled to America from Africa during Colonial times. There are dozens of varieties today that fall into one of four groups:

--Black-eyed. These are white or beige with a black circular "eye" in the inner curve. Colored eyes also may be pink, brown or tan.

--Crowder. Starchy and hardy in texture, crowder peas are so named because they are crowded in the pod. The close spacing blunts the ends of the peas and gives them a squarish shape. They cook up darker, too.

--Cream. Smaller, light-colored peas that cook up light. These peas have a more delicate, buttery flavor and creamier texture.

--Field pea. Robust and small, they produce a dark liquid when cooked.

Pea recipes

Here are two ways Johnson has prepared Southern peas at Anson:

Field Pea Salad

4 servings

2 cups fresh field peas, such as Dixie Lee, Zipper or Pink-Eye

5 strips slab bacon, minced

2 cloves garlic, minced

3 ribs celery, heart and leaves, minced

1 red onion, sliced, grilled or broiled, and minced

1 red pepper, roasted, peeled and minced

3 tablespoons sherry vinegar

1/4 cup olive oil

1 tablespoon bacon fat

3 tablespoons minced fresh parsley

2 tablespoons minced fresh tarragon

2 tablespoons minced chives

Salt and pepper to taste

Simmer peas in water with a pinch of salt and pepper until tender. Drain.

Meanwhile, cook bacon until lightly crisp, reserving 1 tablespoon of fat.

Combine garlic, celery, onion, pepper and vinegar and let stand for about 15 minutes. Add peas and bacon. Add olive oil and bacon fat. Add herbs and season to taste. Serve room temperature or cold.

Lowcountry Baked Beans

6 or more servings

3 cups fresh crowder peas

2 bay leaves

3 sprigs thyme

Salt and pepper

1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce

1/4 cup molasses

1 tablespoon dry mustard

3 shakes Tabasco sauce

1/2 cup ketchup

1 sweet onion, minced

6-8 strips of thick-cut bacon

Cover peas with water by about 3 inches in a small saucepan. Add bay leaves, thyme and a pinch of salt and pepper.

Simmer until peas are tender; remove thyme and bay leaves. Drain peas, reserving liquid.

Combine remaining ingredients, except bacon, in a covered casserole dish. Add peas and enough of the cooking liquid to make the mixture a little soupy. Place the strips of bacon on top and place cover on top.

Bake at 325 degrees for about 1 1/2 hours, adding more cooking liquid if needed. Remove lid and increase temperature to 425 degrees and cook until bacon is crisp and the top layer of peas has caramelized.