27 December 2010

Family recipe Monday: New Year

Seeking warmth...

There are rules--no, make that laws--about New Year's Day cooking, especially if your family tree is full of Southerners swarming all over its branches, like ours. The most iron-clad, fundamental one of all is that you have to have black-eyed peas on the menu in large quantities. This is supposed to bring good luck and prosperity in the coming year. I was surprised to find out just how deep-rooted this tradition is. Here's one account:

"The 'good luck' traditions of eating black-eyed peas at Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, are recorded in the Babylonian Talmud (compiled ~500 CE), Horayot 12A: "Abaye [d. 339 CE] said, now that you have established that good-luck symbols avail, you should make it a habit to see qara (bottle gourd), rubiya (black-eyed peas, Arabic lubiya), kartei (leeks), silka (either beets or spinach), and tamrei (dates) on your table on the New Year." However, the custom may have resulted from an early mistranslation of the Aramaic word rubiya (fenugreek)....This custom is followed by Sephardi and Israeli Jews to this day....In the United States, the first Sephardi Jews arrived in Georgia in the 1730s, and have lived there continuously since. The Jewish practice was apparently adopted by non-Jews around the time of the American Civil War."

I'm not so sure that it took that long. Black-eyed peas were themselves brought to the US from West Africa, and were very much present on the tables of African families. They were, however, considered a poverty food crop, suitable for the poor and for livestock only, until after the Civil War. They made it from West Africa to the West Indies by 1643 and made it to the continental US as the slave trade expanded. Black-eyed peas were, and are, a sturdy, dependable and nutritious food. They're the opposite of a luxury crop. Their place on the table expanded after the Civil War, when they were often all that was left in the Reconstruction South's fields. Today they are a Southern favorite across the board.

The tradition is to combine these with greens or cabbage (representing folding money) and cornbread (representing gold) to ensure maximum chances at luck and fortune. Southerners take this very seriously. Really, to do it right, you should eat 365 black-eyed peas to ensure that every day will be a success. Leave three peas on your plate for even better luck.

The problem arises with their taste and texture, which is a bit off-putting for some. Plain boiled black-eyed peas are earthy-tasting with a slightly gritty feel in the mouth, which I for one had trouble handling. Flavoring them with ham hocks did not help. I was happy to leave them all on my plate, but that was not an option. You'd think that would help with the luck thing. It was a source of consternation for all those Southern relatives, and it's a miracle I ever had any good luck or money at all, to hear them talk. Eventually I discovered the myriad recipes for Hoppin' John, and have never looked back. If you're up here on New Year's Day, this is what I'll be serving. Come on over.

Hoppin' John
West Indies rice and bean dishes and promptly spawned thousands of variations across the Caribbean, Central and South America, and eventually the United States and Mexico. If they have made it to Canada, all the better. It's easy to see why--these are solid, nutritious, tasty dishes that can be made in quantity very inexpensively. The name "Hoppin' John" has many explanations, the most likely being that it is an English mispronunciation of pois pigeons, or "pigeon peas," the name still used in the Caribbean for the many, many varieties of black-eyed peas. Leftover Hoppin' John served on January 2 is apparently called Skippin' Jenny, and is yet one more harbinger of good luck, representing your frugality. We will take all the luck we can get....

1 pound dried black-eyed peas (or two cans if you forgot to soak the dried ones)
5 T olive oil and/or butter (or enough to cover the bottom of a skillet, just)
1 lb. smoked sausage, sliced
3 large cloves garlic, minced
1 bay leaf
1 can (10 to 14.5 ounces) Ro-Tel tomatoes
2 sweet onions, chopped
1 red bell pepper, chopped
1 green bell pepper, chopped
1 jalapeno, minced
3 ribs celery, chopped
2 teaspoons Cajun or Creole seasoning (I am a Tony Chachere fan)
1 teaspoon dried thyme leaves
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon salt

This is best made the day before, so that the flavors have time to reach their peak. (You may not feel up to cooking on New Year's Day, either, so this can be a real plus.)

Soak the black-eyed peas for at least 4 hours in plain cold water, better yet overnight. Pick out the floaters and any other non-starters, drain  the water and replace it with fresh cold water just to cover. (I use a slow cooker for this.) In a skillet, heat the olive oil and butter, and saute the sausage, onion, garlic, peppers, and celery. Add the seasonings and continue to saute until the vegetables are cooked through but not limp. Transfer the vegetable mixture to the black-eyed peas. Check the cooker periodically to stir the mixture and adjust seasonings. The peas are done when you can see their skins start to peel back when you blow gently on a spoonful of them. Serve hot over cooked rice (or mix with cooked rice) with plenty of Tabasco (regular, green and/or chipotle, if you're not a purist) and Worcestershire sauce, cornbread and greens.

You can also use a Dutch oven or small lidded stockpot if you want this as a stovetop preparation. Keep the burner temperature low to medium, never high. I personally don't cook the black-eyed peas and rice in the same pot, but that is a popular approach. I just like serving the peas on top of the bed of rice. I've used long-grain white, brown, pecan, and wild rice in years past, all to great effect.

This recipe is great for additions and experimentations with ingredients, and can be doubled (or quadrupled) to feed a crowd. The one thing you cannot do on New Year's Day, unless you want to be swarmed by Southern ghosts, is to substitute any other bean variety for black-eyed peas. Not an option. You have the rest of the year for red and black beans.

I'm planning to use this cornbread recipe:

Texas Panhandle cornbread
1 cup blue or yellow cornmeal
1 T baking powder
1 ½ tsp salt
2/3 cup melted butter or bacon drippings
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1 cup sour cream
2 cups whole-kernel corn
¼ lb. grated cheese
1 4-oz can chopped green chiles
½ cup bacon bits (very, very optional)

Grease a 9” square pan or large cast iron skillet. Mix the dry ingredients in a large mixing bowl. Blend the butter, eggs and sour cream with the dry ingredients. Fold in the corn kernels. Pour half of the batter into the pan or skillet. Cover with the cheese and chiles. Pour the remaining batter over the top and add the bacon bits. Bake in a preheated oven at 375* F for 30-40 minutes.

For the greens, I like to do a spinach salad, not having a ready source of fresh collard or turnip greens up here. Cabbage is also an option. I assume that it has to be green cabbage for green folding money, so red cabbage is out. This may annoy Gene's Pennsylvania Dutch ancestors, but, really, y'all, we can make up for it starting January 3. This version omits the hard-cooked eggs and bacon. I would use the artichoke oil as part of the dressing, myself.

Spinach salad
Fresh spinach, washed, torn
1 jar marinated artichoke hearts
Garlic salt
Onion powder
Mix all ingredients. Toss with 2 T oil and 2 T vinegar. Toast sesame seeds and mix.
--Vada Brooks Johnson

There are no New Year's Day dessert laws that I know of, so you can go wild there. We made pecan pie for Christmas and may just do it again for New Year's Day.

Pecan pie (Tidewater, Virginia)
Make pastry for 1 9” pie and line pan. Beat together 3 eggs, 2/3 cup sugar, 1/3 tsp salt, 1/3 cup butter (melted), 1 cup dark syrup. Mix in 1 cup pecan halves. Pour into pan. Bake at 375o for 40-50 minutes.
--Dolly Shaffner Hess, Gene K. Hess

Serve with iced tea (sweet if you're Southern) and possibly mimosas if you're up to them after the New Year's Eve party. Here are tips from the Simple Gifts files, if you're unsure about iced tea. Any time you have the option, sweeten tea when it is hot and then allow it to cool.

Three ways of looking at iced tea

  • Using loose tea or teabags and boiling water, bring 1 quart of freshly drawn cold water to a full rolling boil in a saucepan. Remove from heat and immediately add 1/3 cup of loose tea or 15 teabags. Stir, cover, and let stand 5 minutes. Stir again and strain into a pitcher holding another quart of cold water. Serve over ice. Yield 2 quarts.
  • Using teabags and cold water, fill a clean quart pitcher or container with cold tap water. Add 8-10 teabags without tags. Cover and refrigerate at least 6 hours or overnight. Remove teabags, squeezing against side of container. Pour into ice-filled glasses. Recipe may be doubled.
  • Using instant tea or iced tea mixes and cold water, follow directions on jar or envelope. In general, allow 2 rounded T of powder to each quart of cold water. Stir and add ice. If using flavored iced tea mix, use 2 small envelopes or ½ cup mix to each quart of cold water.

May the New Year be bright, bountiful, and just filled to overflowing with good luck for you and yours.

1 comment:

Butterfly said...

Thanks so much for the cornbread recipe - we made cheddar & kale muffins to go with our hoppin' john for the new year, but I made your cornbread yesterday and it is absolutely delicious!