Pickled black-eyed peas
When Helen Corbitt, the famed Texan chef, arrived in Texas from New York in 1931, she was presented with the state’s love for black-eyed peas, a field pea that is small, beige, and adorned with a black dot in the center, hence its name.
As she was tasked with creating menus for Texans, naturally this favorite would need to appear but there was one problem—she couldn’t stand the taste of the little legumes. Helen Corbitt hated black-eyed peas.
Now, Corbitt was known for her fanciful cooking, and as she worked her way through the dining rooms of the state’s country clubs, universities, hotels, and high-end department stores, she delighted her guests with dishes such as creamy cheese soup, poppy seed dressing, and cakes baked in miniature flower pots. Her table was beautiful and people flocked to enjoy her food.
But back to those pesky peas. Because they were abundant in Texas and many considered them not only a mealtime staple but also a necessary food on New Year’s Day to ensure good fortune, she knew it was important for her to serve them but she wasn’t pleased with the proposition.
For some reason, the traditional pot loaded with pork just didn’t appeal to her. After trial and error, however, she decided to take cooked black-eyed peas and marinate them in oil, vinegar, garlic, and onion. This produced a tangy, snappy dish that had her trademark elegance in both look and taste. They were an instant hit.
At first she called her creation pickled black-eyed peas, but they were soon known as Texas caviar (though this term did not originate with her as it had been used earlier for stewed black-eyed peas). Neiman Marcus, where she began working in 1955, placed the pickled peas in jars and sold them in its stores.
Here’s the interesting thing: Texas caviar is now a classic but the dish that most of us enjoy today differs from the Corbitt original. Instead, in today’s version the peas are usually mixed with peppers, tomatoes, and cilantro, making it more of a black-eyed pea salsa rather than a refined garnish or salad.
In doing research, it appears that this transition started in the 1970s and while Corbitt’s name often comes up in discussion of this Tex-Mex rendition, I’m not sure she had anything to do with it, since the recipe published in her cookbooks and in newspaper profiles about her was always the minimal, pickled recipe described above.
As I thought about something to make for the New Year, I asked my community on social media for ideas and was presented with many good ones. But when my friend Stephanie suggested pickled, I instantly thought of Texas caviar and began to do some research.
To be honest, I assumed it was Corbitt who created the Tex-Mex version we commonly enjoy today, so I was surprised to see her original take. Curious what it was like, I knew that I had to make it.
Corbitt takes cooked peas and packs them into jars with oil, vinegar, onion, and garlic, and lets them marinate for a day or so, though I discovered they were delicious even after a few hours if one wanted to speed up the process.
While hers grab their flavor from the onion and garlic, for mine I also included a jalapeño for a hit of heat. To serve, they make a good side dish though some articles with her recipe suggested serving them with tortilla chips, which is excellent, too, especially if you add the pepper. It also works well on tacos or in queso.
Corbitt wrote about her creation and New Year’s Day: “A good Texan eats [black-eyed peas] some time during the day to insure prosperity for the coming year—whether he likes them or not. I came to Texas wide-eyed and innocent about such shenanigans—I didn’t like the peas either. So-o-o I pickled them.”
And like all fans of this bright and lively black-eyed pea dish, I’m glad that she did.
Happy New Year!
Pickled black-eyed peas
- 1 pound dried black-eyed peas or 2 (15-ounce) cans black-eyed peas, drained and rinsed
- Kosher salt
- ½ medium red onion, cut into thin slivers
- 2 cloves garlic, smashed
- 1 jalapeño, cut into rings (optional)
- 1/2 to ¾ cup canola or olive oil (see note)
- ¼ cup red wine vinegar
- ¼ teaspoon black pepper
- If starting with dried black-eyed peas, place the peas and about 1 tablespoon salt in a large pot, cover with 2 inches of water, and either soak overnight or for a quick soak, bring to a boil, then turn off the heat and cover the pot for 1 hour.
- After the peas have soaked, bring to a boil then turn the heat down to low and simmer covered for 30 minutes. Remove the lid, then continue to simmer until tender, about 1 hour. Drain the peas. (If using canned black-eyed peas, you can skip these steps.)
- Place the cooked peas in a bowl and stir in the onion, garlic, and jalapeño. Whisk together the oil and vinegar until well blended then pour the dressing over the peas and stir until well combined. Add the pepper than add salt to taste, about ½ teaspoon.
- Chill in the refrigerator covered for at least 4 hours before serving, though they will get even more tangy and flavorful the longer they sit. The pickled black-eyed peas will last for a week in the refrigerator. Corbitt recommended serving them with a plate and fork, though they can be served as a garnish or a dip, too.
When my family moved to Dallas from Los Angeles in 1965, my mother insisted we eat BEP for the new year and simply heated a can on the stove. Blech! No wonder I hated them. My own version of pickled BEP uses fresh peas, which I can find in Chicago (!). I add red onion, carrots, bell pepper and green onions for a great way to start the new year. Colorful, crunchy and delicious
Alexis–There’s nothing like homemade black-eyed peas. And I’ve never heard of adding carrots to pickled black-eyed peas, but I like that idea!
Have you ever thought about adding a pinterest link to your recipes ? makes it so much easier for us to save recipes !
Odette–There’s a Pinterest share button at the bottom of the post and it should take you to your Pinterest page. It works for me, but please let me know if it doesn’t work for you.
I’m in Texas so this time of year I am able to get fresh black-eyed peas. Do they need to be cooked or can I use them straight out of the bag, like the canned?
Michele–Fresh ones should be cooked in salted boiling water for about 8-10 minutes or until tender.
As a service to others who may read these comments and have a similar question, I recommend cooking 20 minutes. I cooked them for 8 minutes, they still had some “bite”, kind of al dente, and I just went with it thinking that’d be good in this recipe, and I got sick. That led me to Google learn about lectin. Always cook your beans until very soft, folks!
Michele–I’m so sorry you got sick. Hope you’re feeling better!
We made this yesterday using canned BEP’s. The next time we will not just drain but also rinse the peas. Also chop the red onion, use less olive oil and more vinegar. Someone had the idea of using tarragon vinegar and that sounds like a great idea too, but we may try adding dried or finely chopped fresh dill instead.
Thank you for the feedback! Love the idea of adding fresh dill.
I too made these yesterday. Transplanted from the Great State of Texas I am always looking for a little taste of home. I used two cans of BEP drained and rinsed.
I will agree that they seemed a bit heavy on the olive oil. After refrigeration overnight the oil became thick and not very attractive. So I will try cutting the EVOO back on the next batch.
Cecil–What’s funny is that the original recipe called for 1 cup! I think I’ll make a note above since two of y’all have said something. Happy New Year!
Thanks for the back story on Helen’s peas. Her original recipe is an annual New Year’s tradition at my house (from her original cookbook), eaten first scooped with big Fritos, then on top of greens for a salad. I use canola oil, which doesn’t solidify in the fridge like olive oil. My mother was a Texas caterer, and Helen was her mentor. I have an autographed cookbook from 1974 (Cooks for Company), so the extra details you provided are fun tidbits for me. Happy New Year Lisa!
Barbara–That is so cool that Helen Corbitt was your mother’s mentor! And thank you for the canola oil tip–that appears to be the way to go with this. Happy New Year!