Smile Politely

Ringing In the New Year With a Big Bowl of Black-Eyed Peas

While living in Texas I was introduced to the custom of eating black-eyed peas on New Year’s for good luck. My friend Carrie would whip up a batch of Texas caviar, a salsa-like dish made with fresh black-eyed peas, chopped red onion, fresh tomato, green onion and jalapeño — all tossed together in red-wine vinaigrette. We would snack on the “caviar” with tortilla chips while watching football on New Year’s Day. Tasty and refreshing, Carrie’s Texas caviar was something I looked forward to year after year.

In fact, the black-eyed pea (also known as the cowpea) is used in many southern dishes including soups, stews, salads, fritters and casseroles. It’s historically tied to the south, too: the black-eyed pea was first brought to the United States by the African slaves. Highly nutritious and easy to grow, black-eyed peas quickly became a common crop across the southern states and became a staple in southern cuisine.

In central Illinois, fresh black-eyed peas show up at the grocery store only once or twice a year, always around the holidays. Compared to the dried or canned varieties, fresh black-eyed peas tend to be sweeter, creamier and more tender.

Looking for a little luck and prosperity as 2008 begins, I picked up a bag of fresh black-eyed peas at the local grocery store and cooked up a pot of Hoppin’ John. A traditional dish made of black-eyed peas — and often accompanied by rice and pork — Hoppin’ John is one of the more common ways of preparing black-eyed peas in the South, and is typically served on New Year’s Day. The dish is said to bring good fortune, specifically money — and who couldn’t use an extra chunk of cash this time of year?

Hoppin’ John is an easy one-pot meal with minimal preparation. I was lucky enough to find fresh black-eyed peas for this dish, but you can definitely use canned black-eyed peas which are readily available year round. As with all canned products, make sure to drain and rinse the peas well to remove the residual canning liquid. (This liquid tends to be “tinny” tasting and also contains a lot of un-needed salt.)

For this dish I par-cooked the black-eyed peas slightly to make sure they would be fully cooked in the final dish. In other words, I combined the peas in a small sauce pot with plenty of cold water, brought the water to a simmer and simmered gently, uncovered, for ten minutes. Then I drained the water and set the black-eyed peas aside. .

While the peas were par-cooking, I began preparing the vegetables and gathering all the ingredients.

• 2 slices bacon, diced
• 1½ cups yellow onions, chopped
• 4 cloves garlic, minced
• 4 ounces smoked ham, diced (I used a smoked ham hock from Triple S Farm)
• 1 teaspoon dried thyme
• ½ teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
• 2 bay leaves
• 1½ cups long-grain white rice
• 3 cups chicken stock

In a large, heavy pot melt 2 tablespoons of butter (or bacon fat if you happen to have some) over medium heat. Add the diced bacon and cook, stirring, until the bacon has rendered most of its fat and has become slightly crisp.

Add the onions, garlic, thyme, red pepper and bay leaves. Continue to cook, stirring, until the onions become translucent and golden brown around the edges.

Then add the rice. Continue to cook the rice, while stirring, until all the rice is coated in the fat and becomes a little toasty, only about 1-2 minutes. This is a very important step in ensuring that the grains becomes fluffy and remain separate in the final dish.

Add the pork, reserved black-eyed peas and chicken stock, stir. Bring to a simmer, cover and bake until the rice has absorbed all the liquid, 20 to 25 minutes. Immediately uncover, fluff with a fork and let the Hoppin’ John rest for about ten minutes before serving. This allows the steam to escape and prevents the rice from becoming gummy.

I served the Hoppin’ John with home-baked cornbread muffins and a dash of Louisiana hot sauce.

I also prepared some turnip greens that I boiled briefly, drained, and sautéed in sliced garlic and olive oil. The final meal was delicious and filling. I wish I could have eaten more. But I think I ate enough that I can sit back and wait to see what good luck and fortune comes my way.

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