Today she had a huge pile of fresh black-eyed peas. The pods were beautiful - long and thin, dark green, with subtle bulges where the fat beans lay inside. I'd never bought them before, but of course I was fascinated.
"Get yourself a ham hock," she told me. "Boil it up in some water for an hour, then add the beans and cook 'em till they're soft. They're goo-oo-ood." Seeing Emery with me, she tilted her head his way: "Make him do the shellin'," she added.
I didn't have to make him, of course. He shelled willingly. It took a while, too, and I was glad for the help. I did exactly as instructed: bought a ham hock at Bob's Market, which Richard the butcher kindly chopped into a few pieces; simmered it in water in my cast-iron dutch oven; added the shelled beans and a little more water. An hour later the beans were soft and smokey, the ham was falling apart, and the broth was...was...I can't even describe how delicious it was. No words. Me, without an adjective - can you believe it? Doesn't happen very often, you know.
I have no southern roots, and I didn't grow up cooking with ham. But now that I know, I'm never letting go. I'm sure some ancestor is rolling over in a grave somewhere. Oh well.
- 1 2-lb ham hock, cut into several pieces by your helpful butcher if possible
- 2 lbs fresh black-eyed peas (yields about 3 cups shelled)
- salt to taste
Meantime, shell the black-eyed peas. It's tough going; the pods don't zip open easily when they're really fresh. Have patience. Recruit an assistant. Put on some good music. You'll be there a while. It's okay, because the ham hock needs to simmer for a while. In fact, it needs to simmer for exactly as long as it takes you to shell the beans. Convenient, yes?
Add the shelled black-eyed peas to the ham in the pot, and top it off with a little more water if you need it. Simmer the mixture about an hour, until the beans are very soft and the ham can be shredded easily with a fork. Taste and add salt to your liking. Remove the ham hocks from the beans and put them on a cutting board; discard the bones and shred the meat, taking out any fat or gristle.
Drain the beans of most of their liquid and put them in a serving bowl. Do not throw away the liquid; it's ambrosia. I used mine to cook another pot of beans - dried this time - which I'll put in the freezer for another time. Add the shredded ham to the black-eyed peas and serve.