Cowpeas Recipes

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Akara with Tomato Sauce


As we mentioned in last summer’s entry on Falafel, the concept of deep-fried bean fritters apparently was invented in the Maghreb and taken by Arab traders throughout the Islamic world.  In West Africa they took on the form of akara which are made from indigenous cowpeas and are simply flavored with onion, ginger, a little cayenne pepper, and salt.  These turn out much lighter than falafel and in fact remind us more than a little of the best hushpuppies we’ve ever eatern.  Even though the list of ingredients is short, the depth of flavor contained in these fritters is amazing, and you really owe yourself the experiencing eating them at least once, preferably with the accompanying spicy tomato salsa, also characteristic of West Africa.  We adapted the following from the 1970 African Cooking volume of the Time-Life Foods of the World series.

½ pound dry cowpeas
¼ cup onion, coarsely chopped
1 tablespoon fresh ginger, scraped and coarsely chopped
½ – ¾ cup water
¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 teaspoon salt
Vegetable oil for deep frying

Let peas soak in hot water for an hour.  Rub the peas between your hands to loosen and remove the hulls.  Skim the hulls from the water.  When all the hulls can be removed have come loose, drain the peas and recover with hot water.  Let rest for another 20-30 minutes, and repeat the dehulling process.  Continue until most of the peas are dehulled. 

Drain peas.  Place in a blender with the onion, ginger, water, cayenne and salt.  Puree until the mixture turns into a smoothish paste.  Transfer to a bowl.

Heat oil to 375° F.  Drop batter into the oil in 1 tablespoon units until there is a single layer of balls covering the fryer bottom.  As the fritters cook they will float to the surface of the hot oil and then turn over.  Remove from the oil when they are golden brown on all sides.  Drain on paper toweling and keep warm in a low oven.   

Serve on a heated platter with the tomato sauce in a separate bowl. 

Tomato Sauce

1 small onion, peeled and coarsely chopped 
4 large cloves garlic, coarsely chopped
1 large tomato, blanched, peeled, seeded, and coarsely chopped
¼-½ fresh habanero chili, seeded and chopped
1 tablespoon fresh ginger, scraped and coarsely chopped
2 tablespoons canola oil
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1 teaspoon salt

Place onion, garlic, tomato, chile, ginger and tomato paste in a blender and puree until smooth. 

Heat oil in a skillet.  Add in vegetable puree and salt and cook over medium-high heat until most of the liquid has cooked out and a thick paste has formed.


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Balti Lobia (Black Eyed Peas)


The preparatory work is over.  We now have Balti, Tandoori, and Green Masala Pastes plus Balti Garam Masala and Aromatic Salt.  We can now assemble our feast.

We'll start with a pulse.  Cooked legumes are one of the most important components of any meal on the Indian Subcontinent, especially among vegetarians.  These foods are tasty, high in protein, and easily grown in large quantities and thus able to help feed many hungry mouths. 

While the Black Eye Pea (Lobia in Hindi) originated in sub-Saharan Africa, it rapidly spread across Asia and became a staple throughout India and southeast Asia.  While not as commonly used in the Subcontinent as chickpeas, gram, mung beans or pigeon peas, they do occasionally appear on tables.  The almost smoky flavor and creamy texture of Black Eye Peas marries well with the aromatic, savory flavors of Balti Masala paste. Makes 6 servings

1 pound Black Eye Peas or any Field Pea
2 tablespoons Canola oil
1 medium Onion, thinly sliced
1 heaping tablespoon Balti Masala Paste
Aromatic Salt to taste

Pick over dry peas, removing any stones or foreign material.  Rinse and cover with cool water.  Let soak at least 12 hours or over night and drain.

Bring three quarts of water to a boil in a deep pot.  Add drained peas, bring back to a boil, and then reduce heat.  Simmer peas for 45-60 minutes until tender.  Drain. 

Heat Canola oil until almost smoking and add chopped Onion.  Sauté for 5 minutes until slightly transparent.  Stir in Balti Masala paste, and fry for another minute or so.  Add in cooked beans and adjust seasoning with Aromatic Salt.

Remember that Black Eye Peas are just one of a large number of Cowpeas / Field Peas, which range in color from white to red, yellow, brown, and black.  Each will make the dish a bit different -- try the various kinds to see which you like the best. 


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Collard & Black Eye Pea Soup


While not a traditional southern dish, this wonderful soup makes use of a number of iconic southern ingredients, including not only collards but also black eyed peas.  While the original recipe by Sarah Belk (presented in the 1990 Best of Food & Winerecipe compendium; ISBN 978-0916103118) uses smoked ham hocks, we have made our version vegan by swapping out the pork for mushrooms and a dash of liquid smoke.  We also found that the best accompaniment were small hushpuppies, which we adapted from Bill Neal’s classic 1985 Southern Cooking (ISBN 978-0807842553).  As you’ll see, the huspuppies are vegan as they include eggs and buttermilk.  If you want to keep the meal vegan, simply substitute toasted French bread.  Lastly, we very much like garnishing the soup at the table with a little Eastern North Carolina-style spicy vinegar barbeque sauce.   While you should feel free to use any vinegar-based hot sauce, we’ve also included a typical recipe in case you’d like to try the real thing.

1 gallon water 
4 carrots, peeled and cut lengthwise into halves
4 celery ribs, cut lengthwise into halves
4 medium onions, each studded with 3 whole cloves
12 oz whole Crimini mushrooms
1 small bunch of Italian parsley, tied together at the stem end
12 whole peppercorns
1 tablespoon dried hot red pepper flakes
1 tablespoon dry thyme
4 bay leaves
½ scant teaspoon liquid smoke 
2 cups dry white wine
½ pound black eye peas, cooked until just tender
1½ pounds collards, stemmed and cut into 1” dice
¼ cup cider vinegar
salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Place water, carrots, celery, mushrooms, parsley, peppercorns, red pepper flakes, thyme, bay, liquid smoke, and white wine into a large soup pot.  Bring to a boil and simmer until the vegetables are tender, at least 2 hours. 

Drain stock through a colander, and return stock to the pot.  Place the carrot, celery, and onions (with cloves removed) in a deep bowl with 1 cup of the stock.  Puree smooth and return to the stock.  Cut mushrooms into ¼ inch slices and return to the stock. 

Bring stock back to a simmer.  Add in cooked black eyed peas and prepared collards.  Simmer for 30 additional minutes.  Add in cider vinegar and adjust seasoning with salt and pepper.

Serve with hushpuppies (see below recipe).  Feel free to garnish with a vinegar-based hot pepper sauce, preferably some type of North Carolina barbecue-style vinegar sauce (also see below).   


1½ cups corn meal
½ cup flour
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon sugar
2 tablespoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
¼ teaspoon garlic powder
2 eggs, beaten
1¼ cup buttermilk
2 tablespoons corn oil
½ cup green onion, finely chopped
Oil for frying

Heat oil in a deep fryer, or 2” deep oil in a cast iron skillet to 365° F. 

Sift together all dry ingredients.  Mix together all wet ingredients, and then pour into the dry ingredients.  Mix well. 

Drop 1” diameter balls of batter into the oil.  They will initially sink to the bottom, then rise to the top, and then flip over when the bottom side is cooked.  When the inital top side has flipped over and turned a golden brown, remove from oil and drain on paper toweling. 

Eastern North Carolina Barbeque Sauce

2 tablespoons cayenne pepper
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 teaspoons salt
1 cup cider vinegar

Mix all ingredients together and pour into a clean jar.  Seal and let sit in a cool, dark place for at least 10 days.


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Middle Eastern Bean Salad


With its fresh tomato, garlic, parsley, and sautéed onion slices this simple bean salad is one of our favorites.  To get the most out of this recipe, be sure to track down small beans or field peas as these have a higher surface area to volume ratio, and thus are able to be coated in more dressing as compared to larger pulses such as pintos or garbanzos.  Although we’ve never tried it, we suspect that this recipe would work wonderfully using brown lentils.  Serves 4.

1 cup dried small beans or cowpeas cooked until tender and drained
1 medium tomato, seeded and chopped
2 cloves of garlic, minced or pressed
¼ cup chopped parsley
1 medium yellow onion peeled and thinly sliced

Sauté onion slices in a tablespoon of olive oil until transparent


½ cup olive oil
1/3 cup of lemon juice
salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste.

Combine ingredients in a quart jar, cap, and shake vigorously to combine.

Mix all prepared ingredients with the dressing.  Let sit for an hour to allow the flavors to meld and serve at room temperature.

You'll want to use a sweet onion, flatleaf parsley, and a pungent but nutty Middle Eastern garlic like Himalayan Red.  Any home grown, ripened on the vine tomato will work well.  This recipe is a fine excuse to try various types of cowpeas or any other small pulse, like tepary beans. Each of will give the salad a different appearance and taste -- all of them good.  We used Garnet Rice Beans to make the salad illustrated above.


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Mustard Greens with Cowpeas and Rice -- Urfa, Turkey


As our forbearers began to move away from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle to becoming more sedentary farmers, one of the principle issues that they needed to address was balancing their protein intake from vegetable materials.  While meat provides all of the essential amino acid building blocks needed for a healthy body, a given plant material in general does not provide complete protein.  Rather it is necessary to eat a variety of vegetables to ensure that all of the needed amino acids are present in the diet.  What our ancestors learned -- and what vegetarians today recognize as one of the basic tenants of a healthy diet -- is that complete protein is usually present when you eat grass grains and legume seeds in the same meal.

It should thus not be surprising to find the combination of grains and pulses occurring over and over again across the globe, from tofu and rice (east Asia) to dhal and rice (India) to beans and corn (the Americas) to chickpeas and pasta (see the earlier recipe from this month's blog). 

In today's recipe, loosely adapted from a lamb-based dish described by Paula Wolfert in Mediterranean Grains and Greens, this tried and true combination comes from the Urfa region of southern Turkey, just across the Syrian border.  Our version combines basmati rice and cowpeas with wild greens to make a tasty, nutritional powerhouse.

There is one special ingredient for this dish that is not readily available:  Urfa pepper.  These chili pepper flakes are a specality of the Urfa region, and are characterized by their deep chocolate color and complex, almost sweet, smoky, raisin-like flavor along with the hot capsicum bite.  This condiment could not be purchased in the USA when Paula Wolfert detailed the original recipe, so she came up with a substitute based on a 1:1 combination of hot paprika with ground black pepper. 

However, this pepper is now available from a number of vendors on the Internet.  We bought ours off the shelf at the Spanish Table cooking store in Santa Fe.  While we looked for this item on their website, we've not yet been able to find it.  We're hoping that it will soon be available through their website.  Serves 6

1 cup dry cowpeas
1 cup basmati rice
8 cups wild mustard or other spicy greens, such as arugula
¼ cup olive oil, in all
1 cup onion, chopped
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1 tablespoon red pepper paste
salt to taste
1 tablespoon Urfa pepper flakes

Pick over cowpeas to remove any foreign objects, and soak overnight.  Drain, cover with cool water, and bring to a gentle boil.  Cook until almost tender, about 30-45 minutes.
Soak rice in hot water for 10 minutes and drain.  Wash greens and coarsely chop. 

Place 3 tablespoons of olive oil in a casserole and place over medium-high heat.  Add onions and cook for 3-4 minutes or until translucent.  Stir in tomato and pepper pastes, and add in ½ cup water.  Bring to a boil, cover, and simmer for 20 minutes.   Add in the rice and cooked cowpeas.  Simmer, covered, for 5 minutes.  Stir in chopped greens and continue cooking over medium heat until all are tender, another 10 minutes or so.  Remove from heat and season with salt to taste.

Heat the remaining 1 tablespoon olive oil in a small pan over low heat.  Add in the Urfa pepper flakes, and cook gently for a minute or so.  Pour mixture over the cowpeas, greens, and rice, and mix all together.

Serve warm.

We recommend using a pungent onion. If you don't have access to wild greens, any other spicy greens -- like arugula or black mustard -- will do.


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Nigerian Red Beans


Cowpeas were domesticated about 5000 years ago in the savannas of sub-Saharan Africa.  The following wonderful Nigerian recipe for this crop is adapted one presented in the 1970 African Cooking volume of the Time-Life Foods of the Worldseries. Besides the indigenous cowpeas this recipe also uses a number of other non-African ingredients such as onion and garlic (central Asia), ginger (southeast Asia), white pepper (south Asia) and tomatoes (Central America).  Be sure to use ground white pepper in this dish as its winey-flavor is distinct from black papper and is much better adapted for these ingredients. 

1 cup dry red cowpeas, soaked overnight in water and drained
1¼ cup onion, finely chopped, in all
1/3 cup canola oil
3 medium-sized ripe tomatoes, blanched, peeled, seeded and chopped
1 tablespoon tomato paste
2 cloves garlic, pressed
1 tablespoon fresh ginger paste
¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
¼ teaspoon freshly ground white pepper
1 teaspoon salt

Cover soaked cowpeas and ¼ cup of the onion with water and bring to a boil.  Reduce heat to a simmer, cover, and cook until the beans are tender.  Drain.

In a large skillet heat the oil over a medium-high burner.  Add in the remaining onions and sauté until translucent, about 5 minutes.  Add in tomatoes, tomato paste, garlic, ginger, cayenne, white pepper, and salt.   Sauté over moderate heat until the mixture has lost most of its water and has become thick.  Add in the cooked cowpea and simmer until the peas are heated through.  Serve warm over rice or cassava paste.


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Southwestern Cowpea Salad


There are a few foods that Jeff absolutely hates, and top on that list is anthing that uses sweet corn kernels.  Yet, this is exactly what is used to make almost any "southwestern" style salad in the modern American cuisine.  As far as Jeff is concerned the way that God intended corn to be used is as cooked posole, which has an excellent texture and wonderful nutty flavor as opposed to the sweet-only insipid flavor of sweet corn.  To illustrate just how much better posole serves in these recipes, we present here a southwestern cowpea salad that now bears little resemblance to its initial presentation in Mark Miller’s 1994 The Great Salsa Book(ISBN 978-0785830764).  Note that the salad keeps mellowing and melding it flavors for many days in the refrigerator.  Be sure to give it at least 24 hours before serving. 

1 cup dry cowpeas
1 cup nixtamal or dry posole (we used home-made blue corn posole)
1 large poblano (ancho) chile
1 cup white wine vinegar
2 cups water
2 green serrano chiles, halved
1 teaspoon salt
1 cinnamon stick
1 teaspoon black peppercorns
1 teaspoon dry Mexican oregano
1 teaspoon dry thyme
2 bay leaves
½ cup diced celery
½ cup diced carrots
1 small sweet red bell pepper, diced
1 small sweet yellow bell pepper, diced
1 small sweet orange bell pepper, diced
1 small red onion, peeled, cut in half and cut into ¼ inch wide slices
½ cup extra virgin olive oil
12 cherry tomatoes, quartered
½ cup chopped cilantro
½ cup chopped green onion

Cook the cowpeas until tender.  Remove from heat and drain.  If you are using more than one cowpea variety, cook each type separately as they will cook at different rates.

Cook nixtamal/posole until tender.  Remove from heat and drain.

Roast fresh poblano over a fire or hot burner, turning until all sides are blistered and blackened.  Remove from heat, place in a plastic bag, and let steam for 5 minutes.  Remove from bag and rinse under cold water to remove the blackened skin.  Open and remove the seeds.  Cut into ½ x 2” strips. 

Bring vinegar, water, salt, Serrano chili, oregano, thyme, cinnamon, black pepper and bay to a boil.  Simmer for 15 minutes.  Strain out solids.

Bring the liquid back to a simmer and add in the diced carrots and celery.  Poach for 5 minutes.  Add in the diced red, yellow, and orange bell peppers and red onion slices.  Poach for another 5 minutes.  Strain out the vegetables and let cool.  Return the poaching liquid to the pan and continue boil until reduced to ½ cup.  Remove from heat and cool. 

Whisk together the olive oil and reduced poaching liquid, and toss with the cooked cowpeas, posole, poblano strips, poached vegetables, chopped cilantro and green onion.  Let stand for a least overnight to allow the flavors to meld.  Serve at room temperature.