Yes, sir - it's officially fall. Happily, despite the cooler weather, there are still field peas to be eaten. I had never made lady peas or, truthfully, even heard of them until I came to live in Alabama. I've seen them often enough on local menus, and Frank Stitt spends at least a page in his gorgeous cookbook, Frank Stitt's Southern Table, explaining the delicious nuances that distinguish various kinds of beans and peas, including a mention of this particular legume.
Anyway, there's a vegetable stand on Rocky Ridge, and after my run on Friday I stopped by to see what they had. I left with a bag of okra, a ziplock of homemade boiled peanuts, and a couple of pounds of already shelled lady peas. I saw them and thought, hey, they have to be something like black-eyed peas, right? Which are awesome, by the way.
Now for the second part of this recipe idea. Last fall, D and I went to see U2 play in Atlanta, and we ended up making a short vacation of it and spending two nights at The Mansion on Peachtree, which is entirely lovely - probably because it's also an apartment building in addition to being a hotel. P.S.: any hotel where you can order middle-of-the-night hot fudge sundaes and freshly baked chocolate chip cookies from room service is all right by me.
We had read that Craft, one of Tom Colicchio's restaurants, was next door to our hotel, and as longtime Top Chef fans, we really wanted to try it. (I have loved Tom Colicchio ever since, in an earlier season of the show, he roundly lectured a contestant who had made some terrible fish concoction, and his most pointed criticism was that she had not shown sufficient respect for the creature who gave its life to make that dish. That profound gratitude and reverence for ingredients, particularly animal-derived ones, is one reason why I am also a huge fan of Eric Ripert.) We didn't arrive early enough on the first night for dinner at Craft, which ended up being fortuitous, because the lunch we enjoyed instead the next day was one of the best meals of my life so far. I had perfectly pan-roasted trout with gnocchi that were like pillows of mashed potato souffle, served over a succotash of fresh corn and beans, and swimming in a shallow bowl of (miraculously!) perfectly seasoned country ham vinaigrette. D's lunch was no less amazing: short rib cannelloni baked in béchamel sauce, possibly the richest thing I'd ever tasted.
Yesterday I looked at my huge pile of fresh lady peas, and I thought: these want country ham. This recipe does take a little time and effort - like everything else I seem to make - but it's worth it. Two bits of advice: firstly, think carefully before adding any additional salt to this recipe. Believe me, I know it's second nature to season as you go, but the country ham broth, while tasty, is very salty already. You may find that you taste the final result and don't need to shake anything on top of it - this recipe was one of the few times that has ever happened to me, and I really like salt. Secondly, when you serve yourself up a bowl of this, make sure that you get plenty of the pot liquor. It is like liquid gooold.
lady peas in country ham and thyme broth
for the broth:
1 tbsp. unsalted butter
1 tbsp. olive oil
3 slices Smithfield country ham, cut into one-inch strips
about 4 cups water
6 to 8 stems of thyme
2 green onions, chopped (including green tops)
1 tsp. whole black peppercorns
for the peas:
1 tbsp. olive oil, divided
1 tbsp. unsalted butter
1/2 white onion, finely chopped
8 to 10 stems of thyme, half of them stripped
3/4 cup dry white wine
country ham broth
2 lbs. shelled fresh lady peas, picked over and rinsed
1 slice Smithfield country ham, roughly chopped
Make the broth: Fry country ham strips in a couple of teaspoons of olive oil, turning once, until they’re browned some on both sides. Add ham and any remaining pan juices and bits to a medium saucepan filled with about four cups of water. Add a pat of butter, thyme stems, green onions, and peppercorns. Bring to a boil and then lower heat and simmer for at least 30 to 45 minutes, until you have about a cup to a cup and a half of liquid remaining. Strain broth and reserve as much of the ham and green onions as you can. Chop them roughly. Discard thyme stems and peppercorns.
In the same unwashed saucepan over medium heat, melt butter and olive oil. Let butter sizzle a little until it smells slightly nutty, and then add chopped onion. Sauté for 3 to 5 minutes until onions are somewhat caramelized, adding thyme leaves midway through so that they infuse the butter and oil. Pour in white wine and crank up the heat to high. Reduce until there’s about 1/4 cup of liquid remaining.
Pour in country ham broth, chopped country ham and onions from it, lady peas, and 4 to 5 whole thyme stems. Bring to a boil and then reduce heat to a simmer. Skim foam as it rises to the top, and continue until the peas stop foaming. Cover and simmer for 20 minutes or so, just until they’re tender. Remove thyme stems.
While the peas are cooking, heat another teaspoon or two of olive oil in a pan over high. Fry chopped country ham slice until it’s browned and crisp. Drain on a paper towel.
Serve lady peas in a small bowl with a generous scoopful of broth and a sprinkling of crispy country ham on top.