Thyme and white wine add a little complexity to hearty black-eyed pea soup. Recipe below.
I know, I know. I was supposed to write about black-eyed peas before the new year. After all, they’re one of those foods you eat on New Year’s Eve (or is it New Year’s Day?) to bring you luck in the coming year. But this soup and this post were inspired by a little neighborhood restaurant we had the good luck to discover on New Year’s Day.
We awoke bleary eyed New Year’s Day morning after a night of celebrating in a South Loop bar with friends Carmen, Maurice and Ben. Still, we somehow managed to feed and dress ourselves before noon and head out the door for an antiques flea market that someone thought was a good idea to hold on New Year’s Day. Bland, efficient expressways took us to the far flung western suburbs (where someone thought it was a good idea to hold it).
After some successful antique hunting, we opted for a more interesting route home. It turned out the Main Street we were on becomes North Avenue as it heads into the city, a straight line practically to our neighborhood. Driving back was like rewinding a documentary about metropolitan Chicago’s expansion. As we neared home, we realized we were famished and started weighing various carryout options, trying to figure out who might even be open on the first day of the year.
And suddenly, there on a nondescript corner on a residential block, we spotted The Brown Sack. It looked promising from the outside, especially with the OPEN sign in the window. Inside was just as promising—relaxed and cheerful. My only concern was that the extensive chalkboard menu might be a little overambitious, and there were even additional specials at listed the counter. Could a quiet little corner place really do that much well?
I needn’t have worried. Chef Malaika Marion and her husband Adam Lebin have been in the restaurant business for 25 years now, managing such places as Lula Cafe, Opera and Red Light. This homey little spot is exactly what they wanted to do on their own. Everything we had was delicious—my tender, juicy slow-roasted pork sandwich, topped with slightly spicy coleslaw. Marion’s pot roast sandwich with diced carrots and potatoes tucked into the baguette along with the meat. And a cup of simple black-eyed pea soup that has already proven to be lucky: We’ve just discovered a great new neighborhood spot.
This black-eyed pea soup recipe isn’t an attempt to recreate the satisfying soup we had at The Brown Sack. It’s merely a nod to our good fortune that day. I also didn’t want to take the soup in an especially Southern direction. Yes, black-eyed peas are closely associated with the South. In fact, one possible explanation for the origin of their status as a good luck meal dates back to the Civil War. When Union soldiers advanced through the South, destroying food crops as they went to hasten the end of the war, they spared black-eyed pea plants, which they called cowpeas, apparently considering them merely livestock food. But I wanted to take this soup in a slightly different direction. I left out collard greens (or any kind of greens, for that matter) and added a little wine to the broth for that thing that wine does so well in even the most rustic dishes.
I also used fresh black-eyed peas rather than canned or dried. I’ve been finding them already shelled in some supermarkets these days. They cook more quickly than dried and have a slightly nutty, fresher taste than canned. Increasingly, frozen black-eyed peas have also been showing up in supermarkets. That said, any kind will work. Adjust cooking time if you use dried black-eyed peas, including some soaking time, but you can use the same two-cup amount. A 15-ounce can of black-eyed peas will have about 1-1/2 cups of beans, close enough for government work. Drain and rinse them, then add them in the last five minutes or so of cooking time to warm them through. With frozen, use two cups and follow cooking time instructions on the package.
Black-eyed Pea Soup with Thyme
Serves 2 as a main course (with a crusty bread) or 4 as a starter
3 slices bacon
1 medium onion, chopped
1 rib celery, diced
1 medium carrot, diced
1 large clove garlic, minced
1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves (or generous 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme)
2 cups water (plus extra, if needed)
1 cup chicken broth
1/2 cup dry white wine
1 bay leaf
12 ounces fresh black-eyed peas (about 2 cups)
In a large stock pot or Dutch oven, cook bacon until almost crisp. Transfer to a paper towel-lined plate to drain. Reduce heat to medium-low and add onion, celery and carrot to pot. (You want about 2 tablespoons of oil in the pot to sweat the vegetables. Drain off excess bacon fat if there is too much—I actually had to add canola oil to the pan, since the bacon I used was on the lean side.) Cook vegetables for about 15 minutes, stirring occasionally to avoid browning. Reduce heat, if necessary.
Add garlic and thyme to pot and cook, stirring constantly, until fragrant, about 45 seconds. Add water, broth and wine to pot and stir, scraping up any browned bits. Add bay leaf and black-eyed peas to pot and raise heat to medium-high. Bring soup to a boil, then reduce heat to low, partially cover pot with lid and simmer soup until peas are tender, about 20 to 25 minutes.
To slightly thicken soup, either mash some of the black-eyed peas in the pot with a hand masher or transfer some to a bowl with some broth and use an immersion blender to purée. Then stir it back into the pot. Discard bay leaf and serve soup with a crusty baguette or bread.
Hungry for more black-eyed pea recipes? Here are a couple of my favorites. In the first one, they make a lively chili powder-powered salsa for curried steaks. In the second, they team up with cherry tomatoes, green beans, bacon and chicken for a vaguely Italian one-skillet meal.