Bringing the Family Home

When I lived in Atlanta, Georgia, Hoppin’ John was a very popular dish for New Year’s Day. Every year there would be a big Food section article about it in the Journal-Constitution.  I started making it not because I was a “Southern Girl” (I wasn’t) but because I loved making and serving beans and rice and wanted to try it.

Hoppin’ John is traditionally made from black-eyed peas and rice and is an extremely simple dish.  So why do people make it?  Is it because they drank so much champagne the night before on New Year’s Eve and need something plain to settle down with?  That seems sensible and valid. My own New Year’s Eve Garlic Habit is one reason I enjoy simple, uncomplicated Hoppin’ John the next day.  Just check out the roasted garlic post and you’ll see why!

Popular lore about Hoppin’ John varies but basically says serving this simple dish with collard greens and cornbread will bring prosperity in the new year. Dozens of websites repeat the story that the black-eyed peas represent coins and the collards are green like money, yada yada, yada.

I like the more historic explanation given last year in the Washington Post: http://articles.washingtonpost.com/2011-12-27/lifestyle/35288087_1_black-eyed-peas-hoppin-slave-trade.

My own take on why Hoppin’ John is a New Year’s tradition is sort of coming together as I write. Yes, there is the fact that I eat a LOT of garlic for New Year’s Eve and the plainer fare of Hoppin’ John is a welcome simplicity after all that.

But I have also been waxing nostalgic during the holidays about the fact that Christmas is an international holiday–not just an American one like Thanksgiving or 4th of July.  People all over this planet celebrate it with special foods.  Recipes abound.  And, there are people who celebrate Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Winter Solstice and other traditions each with their own culinary practices.

As a person who loves to cook, that concept really struck me this year .  All over the world special dishes have been cooked to celebrate the season.  People just like me who may speak another language, hold other beliefs than mine, but who love their families, their people and their faiths have expressed their devotion and desire to honor their traditions by cooking familiar and beloved special recipes.

This is the kind of food that brings family and friends home. Clumsy as I am writing about it, this is a beautiful thing that really moves me.

In the United States of America, Hoppin’ John seems like the ultimate comfort-homecoming-we-are-survivors food.  People make it for all kinds of reasons.

I just know that I like this dish and when I make it on New Year’s Day I am in the good company of the American South and all those who wish to express their hopes and postulates that we will all flourish and prosper in the New Year by preparing and serving this simple traditional food. Not only that, I am joining in the cultivation and continuation of culture and tradition–keeping those alive in my own kitchen as others do in theirs.

I’m headed into my kitchen now to start soaking my black-eyed peas.

Wishing you and yours a Happy New Year and may you indeed flourish and prosper in 2013!

HOPPIN’ JOHN

Serves 4-6

  • 2 cups dried black-eyed peas soaked in spring water for several hours or overnight
  • 3-inch piece of kombu seaweed
  • 4-6 more cups of spring water for cooking the beans
  • 1/2 cup of diced onions
  • 1/2 cup of diced carrots
  • 1/2 cup of diced celery
  • hair of the dog – um, I mean a little of that garlic!
  • 1 bay leaf
  • sea salt
  • soy sauce
  • olive oil
  • scallions sliced thin or flat-leaf Italian parsley roughly chopped or sprig of rosemary
  • Cooked rice of your choice

There are many variations for these black-eyed peas including adding some ham or pork.  I prefer this extremely simple vegetarian-style.  Kombu is a sea vegetable and is certainly not traditional to this dish.  I both soak and cook beans with kombu because the minerals help balance the fat and protein in the beans and make them easier to digest.  Nothing southern about soy sauce either but it’s what I use!

I recommend using organic beans and vegetables.  Organic and whole grain rice, too. This year I’m preparing aromatic, long-grain basmati brown rice.

Soak the black-eyed peas in spring water with a 3-inch piece of kombu.

Soak the black-eyed peas in spring water with a 3-inch piece of kombu.

Sort through the beans first to take out any stones or unwanted bits and rinse the beans in cold water a couple times.  Soak the beans in the kombu and enough water to cover them.  Get a heavy large pot and put the kombu in the bottom and layer the soaked beans on top. Cover the beans with fresh spring water.  Bring the beans to a boil then lower the heat so they simmer gently with the lid on.  Don’t add any salt yet. Adding salt at this point would make the beans stay hard.

Don’t stir the beans–just let them cook as they are.  Add cold water as needed to keep the beans covered.  The cold water will drive the heat into the beans so they cook on the inside without getting too mushy on the outside. The time these beans take to cook will vary depending on several factors but let’s estimate about an hour.

When the beans are 3/4 soft, you can add some sea salt and stir the beans.  Now the sea salt will help the beans finish cooking and will help them have a good flavor. Layer your onions, celery and carrots on top of the beans and a bit of sea salt on each layer of those.  Add some garlic and remove the bay leaf.

Cover again and let the beans and vegetables finish cooking.  The water should be just about cooked away at this point.  When the beans are done, season with some soy sauce and simmer just a few more minutes.

Serve your black-eyed peas over some rice and garnish with your favorite sprig such as parsley or scallion or rosemary.  I like a drizzle of olive oil on top. Don’t forget some collard greens and corn bread!  I will probably steam my collards and season them with salt and some slivers of preserved lemon rinds.  I’ll likely use a mix for my cornbread and add fresh non-GMO corn kernels to the batter.

There are endless variations such as using other hearty vegetables like fennel, parsnip, rutabaga or winter squash.  You can add protein into this dish.  You can add whatever herbs you love.  You can make it Cajun or Mediterranean with spices. Mainly I just want you to know how to handle these beans. Use this cooking method for any type of dried bean.

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9 thoughts on “Bringing the Family Home

  1. Thank goodness you were kiddin’ about the hair of the dog! ha ha. We’re having Jambalaya today–the healthiest version I can imagine, with vegan sausages and a half bag of shrimp plus rice and tomatoes and green peppers and whatever else. I will remember this recipe, though. Happy New Years!

    • Thank you Jack. I mean when they are about 3/4 cooked. When the beans are completely done, they will be softened as opposed to tough or still a bit dry. However they should not be mushy – they should still have their bean shape. That’s why I use small amounts of cold water to drive heat into them. So the inside cooks before the outside gets too mushy.

  2. I love turnip greens as well! What a delicious and healthy way to start the New Year. Don’t know much about fatback but was surprised to learn it is an important part of certain Italian and French cooking – not just Southern American. The very name of it, “fatback,” is certainly unappealing to me. Thanks for commenting and Happy New Year!

  3. I do the black-eyed peas, turnip greens, and yellow corn every New Year’s Day. I grew up learning that the peas were for good health, the greens for money, and the yellow corn or yellow hominy were for gold and prosperity. In the old days, we had fried fat-back. I can’t remember what it was for (can anybody help me out here?), but stopped eating it and preparing it as part of my New Year’s Day menu years ago.

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