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I'm cooking my cow peas [black eyed peas] from scratch now, as the easy canned ones pack a wallop of salt. But the traditional recipe includes ‘seasoning meat', a chunk of pork so the fat will thicken the beans. Don't want gross pork fat in my food though… So what works instead? I've tried olive oil and vegetable oil, it didn't work. Do I need to cook these beans longer? Mash some of them? I know this can work, I've had them cooked meat free before. The texture was lovely. My beans aren't like that!
Yes, the traditional way of cooking beans in the South, whether those are black eyed peas or other beans, is to add some salt pork or a slab of bacon. The flavor that this brings to the beans is both salty and umami. There are a lot of ways to do this healthier and tastier, however.
The best way (but one that is more expensive) is to use dried porcini mushrooms. For every pound of black eyes use 1 ounce of porcini. Steep them in 1 cup of boiling water, drain the broth and reserve it for cooking the beans and chop the mushrooms coarsely. The combination of the mushrooms and broth will bring a fantastic umami kick to your beans. You will want to add some salt - about 1/2 teaspoon for each pound of beans should be enough, but you might want to start with 1/4 teaspoon and add a second 1/4 teaspoon if you need to.
You can use crimini mushrooms and coarsely chop them before cooking with the onions. They are less expensive than the dried porcini mushrooms but not quite as flavorful.
There are a few other great flavors that you can use. Worcestershire sauce has a great umami flavor and some saltiness. Add one or two teaspoons for a great umami flavor. You can get a similar results but with a sweeter flavor from a combination of 1 teaspoon Worcestershire, 1 teaspoon of dijon mustard and 1 teaspoon of tomato paste blended together.
You do need a little fat to help with creaminess and mouthfeel, and starting by cooking the onions in a bit of olive oil will help, but your idea of cooking the beans a little longer and mashing a few to release some starch will help thicken the beans.
Answering this question led me to create my Smokey Black Eyed Peas recipe, which uses porcini mushrooms and a combination of Worcestershire, paprika, and sage for that umami flavor.
Thanks for writing.
Timothy S. Harlan, MD, FACP