Beans, especially in the South, can get complicated. Around here, “beans” can mean dried beans or freshly shelled beans or green beans that you eat pods and all. Then there are “peas,” which can mean the green English kind or sugar peas or field peas, like black-eyed peas, which are also called cowpeas. Confused yet? We haven’t even tackled crowder peas — field peas that are tightly packed in their pods — and creamer peas.
The online catalog for the Sustainable Mountain Agriculture Center in Tennessee, cofounded by legendary seed collector Bill Best, lists around 140 Southern beans and peas, many found on family farms in North Carolina, from greasy beans (named for their shiny pods) to our beloved butter beans. Dig around in farmers markets in summer, and you’ll find wonders like Tongue of Fire beans, flecked with red, or tiny White Acre peas and pink-eyed peas.
The name of a bean — or, in some cases,its nickname — tells us something about how we use it. Shellies, for instance, are beans or peas you take out of the shell and cook fresh or dried. Snap beans are so called for their edible pods, which you snap into shorter pieces. These two categories alone encompass all sorts of varieties, and each of those may go by different names: Butter beans are also known as baby lima beans; October beans are some- times called “fall beans” or “speckled beans.”
The bright spot in all of this is that most beans are cooked the same way: If they’re dried, you soak them overnight (or use a quick-soak method), then finish cooking them in water seasoned with salted pork for about an hour. If they’re fresh, skip the soaking and just simmer them until tender, usually 30 to 40 minutes. Add a few more ingredients and you have baked beans or succotash. Tranformation never tasted so good.
Southern Baked Beans
Adapted from Beans & Field Peas: A Savor the South Cookbook by Sandra A. Gutierrez. Gutierrez combined her knowledge of both Latin American and Southern cooking to tackle the tasty subject.
Yield: 10 to 12 servings.
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
½ pound salt pork (side meat, fatback, or pork belly), chopped into small cubes
1 large white onion, peeled and diced (about 2½ cups)
1 large green bell pepper, stemmed, seeded and minced (about 1½ cups)
4 large cloves garlic, peeled and minced
1 pound Great Northern Beans or any medium-size dried white bean, cooked and drained well (see note)
2 (28-ounce) cans diced tomatoes with juice
2 cups chicken broth
1 cup sorghum or unsulfured molasses
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. In a 6- to 8-quart oven-save Dutch oven with lid, combine the oil, salt pork, onion, bell pepper and garlic. Cook over medium-high heat, stirring, until the onions have softened, 4 to 5 minutes, and the pork has started to render its fat.
Add the beans, tomatoes, broth, sorghum or molasses, and pepper, stirring until well-combined. Remove from the heat, cover tightly, and place in the preheated oven. Bake for 2 hours or until the beans are soft and the sauce has thickened.
NOTE: To cook dried white beans, cover them with water and soak 6 hours or overnight. Then bring to a boil, reduce heat, cover and simmer until tender, about an hour. Season the cooking water with a ham bone, salt pork or bacon, or sautéed vegetables, including onion, carrot and celery. Add salt to taste when the beans are tender.
Adapted from Mama Dip’s Kitchen by Mildred Council, beloved owner of the acclaimed Chapel Hill restaurant.
Yield: 8 to 10 servings.
2 cup suncooked, fresh lima beans (or the small limas called butterbeans)
1 teaspoon salt
6 ripe tomatoes, peeled, diced and drained, or 1 (14.5-ounce) can diced tomatoes, drained
2 cups cut-up okra, fresh or frozen (leave it unthawed if using frozen)
¾ stick butter, cut into pieces, or 3 tablespoons bacon fat
3 cups fresh white corn, cut from the cob, or frozen shoepeg corn (unthawed if using frozen)
Wash the beans in cold water, put them in a 2-quart pot, cover with water and add salt. Cook over low heat until tender, about 30 minutes. (Watch the water carefully and add more if needed; most of the water should be gone by the time the beans are cooked. If there’s any excess water, drain the beans well before continuing.)
Add the tomatoes, okra, corn and butter or bacon fat to the cooked lima beans. Cook slowly for 15 minutes, then remove from heat and let stand 15 to 20 minutes before serving.
Simple Southern Butter Beans
Adapted from Marion Brown’s Southern Cookbook by Marion Brown. What’s the difference between a lima bean and a butter bean? Not much: Butter beans are usually smaller, with a creamier texture after cooking. One popular version in North Carolina is the speckled butter bean, which is a little gray when cooked.
Yield: 4 to 6 servings.
1 pound fresh butter beans
1 quart cold water
Salt and pepper to taste
½ teaspoon sugar (optional)
1 tablespoon butter
Pick over and wash beans. Put in a deep covered pot with the water, cover and cook slowly for 10 to 15 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper, and sugar if using. Add the butter. Continue to cook slowly, covered, about 30 minutes. Uncover and cook 10 to 15 minutes longer, until cooking juices are reduced.
Can’t get enough? Here are 19 more classic Our State bean recipes.