With the exception of Christmas, few other holidays are as crammed with tradition as is New Year’s. Who hasn’t’ stayed up ‘til midnight to party, or watch the ball drop at Times Square? Who hasn’t joined in a chorus of Auld Lang Syne, drank a toast, or kissed a significant other at the stroke of midnight, or watched a parade or written down a list of resolutions to mark the beginning of the year?
My grandmother once told me that it was bad luck to hang out one’s laundry on New Year’s Day, and of course, it is a tradition in South Carolina, as well as much of the south to eat black-eyed peas and collard greens on January 1st. This is said to bring luck in the new year, although collards themselves have enough health benefitsto recommend them any time they are available. Along with luck, some say the peas and collards bring prosperity: the collards representing dollars and the black eyes, pennies. Parents admonish their children to eat a copious amount, the theory being that the more you eat the more prosperous you will be in the coming year, although my suspicion is that it is a way to cajole the children into eating the peas, which can become mushy if not carefully cooked, and the sometimes bitter-tasting greens. The New Year’s meal often includes some type of pork, especially hog jowls. While many of us enjoy a bowl of peas with a little pork for seasoning, on the first day of the year, many find the peas rather bland.
From the coastal region of the state comes a dish with a Creole influence that is never bland, called Hoppin’ John. Like many traditional Southern foods, black eyed peas originated in Africa and came over with the slave trade in the 18th century.At the same time rice was a major cash crop in the South Carolina low country, which lends to the theory that the dish may have originated here. The origin of the name Hopping john is not clear, however, though some think that it comes from a distortion of the Creole term for black-eyed peas, pois pigeons. The basic Hopping John contains black-eyed peas and rice with onions, celery and pork. Sometimes bell peppers join the onions and celery creating the so-called holy trinity of creole cooking.
This is a good way to use up some of that leftover Christmas ham, and I usually put a little in the freezer the day after Christmas with this recipe in mind. Traditionally, Hopping John is a spicy dish with both black and red pepper. I think of it as a sort of palliative against the cold winds that rattle through the windows on bitter January afternoons. The recipe appeared in South Carolina cookbooks as early as 1847, which means the dish was well-known in the low country perhaps as early as the 18th century.
One of the tricks to this dish is to get the right proportion of rice to peas. You should use at least twice the measure of peas as rice. One to 1-1/2 cups peas to ½ cup rice is a good proportion. Another trick is not to overcook the peas. Cooking too long or too vigorously will break the skins, turning the peas to mush. Unlike other dry peas and beans, back eyes do not require soaking, and will cook in about 30-40 minutes without it. Cook the rice and peas in the same manner as pasta, by checking for doneness at intervals, so as not to overcook them.
2 tbsp. cooking oil
½ cup diced ham or bacon
½ cup Onion, chopped
2-3 stalks of celery, chopped
1 med. red bell or other red pepper, chopped (optional)
1 tbsp. creole seasoning
1 clove of garlic, minced
1/2 tsp. red pepper flakes or to taste
1 tbsp. old bay seasoning
2 bay leaves
Salt and black pepper
½ cup white or brown rice
1-1/2 cups Black eyed peas
4 cups water
Heat a large cast iron pan or a heavy stock pot over medium heat. Add oil. Once oil starts to ripple, add onions, celery and bell pepper. Sauté until onions are transparent. Add seasonings and garlic sauté for one minute more. Add peas and water. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, cover and simmer 20 minutes. Add rice*. Return to simmer and cook another 20 minutes. Check peas and rice for doneness. Continue to simmer, checking regularly until peas and rice are done. Add water if necessary. Add salt and black pepper to taste.
Remove bay leaves before serving.
An alternate method is to cook the peas and rice separately according to label directions, and add to the other ingredients, or even use canned peas, but cooking in one pot is not only less complicated, it allows the rice to absorb the flavor of the other ingredients.
*If using brown rice add it at the same time as the peas.