Butter Beans to Blackberries

A cookbook that puts you on the front porch, snapping beans, sipping iced tea, and waiting for your peach cobbler. In this definitive cookbook, Ronni Lundy draws upon her Kentucky mountain roots and on the recipes and food passions of the fellow Southerners-from home cooks to a new generation of professional chefs-she met in her extensive regional travels.

Lundy cooks her way through the bounty of the Southern garden, from succulent purple speckled butter beans and lady cream peas to corn and greens, muscadines, Georgia peaches, figs, mayhaws, and watermelon. She visits farm markets and festivals, finds heirloom-seed growers, and provides mail order sources for everything from sweet-potato chips and “old-fashioned whole heart” grits to fiery-orange HoneyBells.

Check out an excerpt from the book:

It was likely June when Faulkner and Porter had their historic conversation. At least that’s when the butter beans, the speckled ones, come in around Mississippi, Faulkner’s home. Wylie Poundstone, the chef at King Cotton Produce Company, a combination produce market and restaurant in Montgomery, Alabama, says, “It takes awhile for butter beans to grow, but if the weather cooperates, we can have them from June right on through the fall.” Bob Gulsby, one of the four owners of King Cotton says, “As long as we’ve got ’em, we’ll ship ’em fresh to anybody who wants to order.”

Those who do are often transplanted Southerners longing for the taste of a vegetable as common as July fireflies where they grew up, but hardly known elsewhere. My experience has taught me that asking for butter beans north of the Mason-Dixon is apt to get you a bowl of thick soup made from very large, dried lima beans. It’s tasty, but a bit on the brackish side and doesn’t have the sweet, creamy flavor of a Southern butter bean at all.

The term “butter bean is used to refer to lima beans, which fall roughly into three categories. First it refers to fresh limas, with the most prized being those with beans of the “baby” variety-small (about the size of your thumbnail) and very tender. Such beans can be found “throughout the United States either fresh (in season), frozen, or canned.

Second, a distinction is made in many regions of the South between this already small lima bean and even smaller ones. These smaller beans may go by different colloquial names. They are known as butter peas in the Montgomery area but may be called “sieve” beans in other parts of Alabama or the South. This is also the bean prized as the “savvy” of Charleston and the surrounding Low Country area of South Carolina. Joe Kemble, assistant professor of horticulture at Auburn University, says the common names are a corruption of the more proper name, sieva bean. Sivvy beans are prized for their sweetness but, alas, don’t ship well.

Third, the speckled butter bean is a variety of lima with a colored, mottled ,skin-usually a deep purplish brown and green, or black and green. Speckled butter beans have a creamier texture and more buttery flavor than their green lima cousins. 1, like my mother before me, watch religiously for speckled butter beans in the very brief period in the summer when they may show up shelled and fresh in the produce department of local supermarkets. Although the farmers in this part of Kentucy don’t grow them commercially, speckled butter beans are a summer staple in farm markets throughout the deeper South, and if you drive the noninterstate highways in June, you are apt to see hand-lettered signs on the side of the road preferring “fresh speckled butter beans-just in.” Most commonly, though, I come by these beans frozen, and sold throughout the year at supermarkets here. They are very nearly as tasty frozen as they are fresh.

Like sieva beans, speckled butter beans sometimes go by colloquial names. For instance, Wylie Poundstone says lots of folks around Montgomery call them rattlesnake beans. And elsewhere a lima variety with cream and maroon speckled skin is called the Christmas bean.

Technically, you can interchange the more widely available baby lima beans for the speckled butter beans in most recipes, but the flavor will be different. All of the beans are delicious, however, and, as Wylie says, “You can do so much with them. They’re some of the most versatile vegetables in the Southern kitchen.”

Remember to go easy on seasonings when you cook butter beans, since it’s the beans’ own subtle flavor which you want to emphasize.

Classic Southern Butter Beans
Serves 6 to 8

This is the fundamental recipe for fresh shelled butter beans. If you’re accustomed to limas cooked in very little liquid (seasoned with a pat of butter and dash of salt on the way to the table), this may seem like a lot of water for cooking, but you want the dish to yield some sweet pot likker to be sopped up by Real Cornbread (page 103). If you’re eating Low Country-style, serve the beans over rice.

2 quarts water

1 ham hock

6 cups (about 2 pounds) fresh shelled baby lima or speckled butter beans


In a large pan, bring the water and ham hock to a boil. Cook, partially covered, at a low boil for about 30 minutes, to season the water. Add the beans and bring the water back to a boil, then turn down the heat and simmer, partially covered, for 30 minutes to 1 hour (see The Time It Takes, below), until the beans are tender and creamy inside. Remove the hock and add salt to taste. Serve immediately or keep refrigerated for 2 to 3 days. Reheat thoroughly before serving.

Note: Frozen speckled butter beans or baby lima beans may be used. When you add them to the water, use a wooden spoon to gently break apart clumps.


Southerners cook butter beans anywhere from 30 minutes to a couple of hours. The choice depends somewhat on the size and freshness of the beans (the larger or older they are, the longer they take to reach tenderness). Some folks like butter beans just at the point when the inside is tender but the skin still pops when bitten. Unless you are making a salad or relish with the beans, I think that’s missing the point. Perfect butter beans are cooked until the insides are quite creamy-the reason for the ‘butter’ in their name.

In most of the recipes for butter beans here, you will find estimated cooking times with a wider variance than is usual in a cookbook. Experiment until you discover what degree of tenderness you prefer, and be aware that even the same type and size of bean will take a different amount of time to cook from one batch to another, depending on the freshness of t e beans. If you want to serve butter beans for a dinner that requires precision timing, cook them to doneness a day or two before, refrigerate them, and reheat thoroughly at serving time.

Jerry’s Speckled Butter Beans
Serves 4

My mother loved to cook frozen speckled butter beans in the winter when their rich, creamy texture and nutty flavor were salve to the soul. We made many a meal of these beans, her mashed potatoes (page 171), and Real Cornbread (page 103), and thought ourselves supremely well fed.

2 cups water

16-ounce package frozen speckled butter beans 2 tablespoons butter 2 tablespoons half and half salt

In a pan with a lid, bring the water to a boil and add the butter beans, stirring gently with a wooden spoon to separate. When the water returns to boiling, reduce the heat, cover, and simmer for 30 to 35 minutes, until the beans are tender. (You may need to add a little water near the end of the cooking time to keep the beans from sticking, but you want most of the water to cook away.) Add the butter and allow it to melt, then add the half and half and stir. Cover and simmer for another 5 minutes, then add salt to taste.

Speckled Butter Beans and Country Ham in Lemon Veloute
Serves 6 to 8

I never thought I’d taste a dish with butter beans as blissfully perfect as my mother’s, but this one is its peer, with a velvety texture and the perfect marriage of complementary flavors in the beans, tart sauce, and tangy ham.

Butter Beans

21/2cups water

5 cups fresh or frozen speckled butter beans

1/4pound country ham with fat removed, cut in small pieces

Lemon Veloute

11/2cups chicken stock

3 tablespoons butter

3 tablespoons flour

2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon



In a heavy pan, bring the water to a boil and add the butter beans. (If using frozen beans, use a wooden spoon to gently break up clumps.) When the water returns to a boil, turn the heat down and let the beans simmer for about 45 minutes, or until the skins are tender and the insides creamy, and most of the water has boiled off.

While the beans are simmering, make the lemon veloute’. In a small pan, heat the chicken stock. Fill the bottom of a double boiler with water, and bring to a boil. Meanwhile, in the top of the double boiler, set directly over low heat, melt the butter and whisk in the flour. Cook, whisking, for five minutes, then slowly whisk in the hot stock. Place over the boiling water and cook for 45 to 50 minutes, stirring occasionally to keep a crust from forming on top.

When the beans are done, add the country ham pieces and cook until the ham is just warmed. Meanwhile, remove the veloute from the heat, add the lemon juice, and salt to taste. Remove the beans from the heat, pour the velout6 over the beans, and mix well. Serve immediately.

Steam Beans

If you should luck upon a crop of fresh sivvy beans or butter peas still in their pods, and they are truly fresh and very young, you may want to try something my friend Don Nobles of Montgomery, Alabama, recommends: ‘I’ve had butter peas steamed still in their little pods when they are very, very young. Just steamed for a few minutes until they’re tender, and then served with salt and butter They’ve a flavor in between an English pea and a snow pea. Truly splendid!

Copyright © 1999 Ronni Lundy

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