According to Southern culinary tradition, setting yourself up for a new year filled with good fortune is as easy as savoring a spoonful of this rice-and-peas dish known as Hoppin’ John. Whether you cook the long-grain rice and field peas together in one pot, or combine cooked rice and peas in the serving bowl, partaking of this simple dish and a serving of long simmered greens assures you an on-going serving of good luck all through the coming year. Both components came into the South from West African lands, and have been grown and savored there since the 1700’s. While black-eyed peas come to mind and to the table first and foremost, Lowcountry cooks are partial to red peas, a smaller, rust-colored cousin within the field pea family, also known as cowpeas since they find favor with bovine creatures as well as with us human beings. Beloved throughout the Caribbean Islands, rice-and-peas dishes are made with red beans, black beans, lady peas, and pigeon peas, known in Creole kitches as pois de pigeon. Might the pronunciation of this particular pea be the seed of the nonsensical name “hoppin’ John”? Maybe so, and maybe not. One thing is certain: We don’t know and probably never will, though silly guesses abound. We know for sure that Hoppin’ John makes for excellent eating, and is too good to save for one luck-seeking meal per year. Cooked with hog jowl, ham hock, side meat or bacon, the peas invite a jolt of flavor from pepper vinegar, tangy relish such as cabbage-based chow-chow, or hot pepper sauce, along with an abundance of cornbread and for the full feast, roast pork. I’m partial to thick-sliced ripe tomatoes if it’s a summertime meal, and bok choy or spinach stir-fried with black pepper, garlic, and Asian sesame oil to round out a meal.
½ pound bacon, preferably thick-cut, or slices of side meat, streak o’ lean, or salt pork
2 cups dried black-eyed peas, soaked in cold water for 6 hours or overnight*
6 cups water
1 cup chopped onion
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
1 ¾ cups raw long-grain rice
In a large saucepan over medium-high heat, fry the bacon or other salt pork until fragrant, crisp, and nicely browned. Remove the meat and set aside to cool, leaving the cooking grease in the pot.
Add the drained black-eyed peas to the pot, along with the 6 cups of water, onion, salt, and pepper. Bring to a rolling boil over medium-high heat. Stir well, and reduce the heat to maintain a lively simmer. Cook, uncovered, stirring now and then, for 1 to 2 hours, until the peas are very tender. Add a little water if needed to keep the water level visible in the pot.
Meanwhile, chop the fried bacon into 1 inch pieces and add to the pot, stirring to mix it in well.
When the peas are done, remove from heat. Drain the cooking liquid into a measuring cup to make sure you have 3 cups, adding more if needed. Return the cooking water to the pot, pouring it back over the tender peas, and bring it up to a rolling boil. Quickly add the rice and stir well.
Reduce the heat to maintain a gentle but visible simmer and cover the pot. Cook undisturbed for 25 minutes. Remove from heat and let stand, still covered, for 10 minutes. Remove the lid, stir gently and serve hot or warm.
Serves 6 to 8
Notes: You could use a smoked ham hock in place of the bacon, cooking it in the 6 cups of actively simmering water for about 30 minutes before you add the black-eyed peas. Cook it along with the peas and the rice. Remove after cooking, cool and chop any meat from the ham hock, and stir the meat into the pot before serving.
Grandma Harris’s Fantastic Turnip, Mustard, and Collard Greens
Thanks to Dr. Jessica B. Harris, the deep, rich culinary history of the African diaspora is ours to know and understand, from geography, agriculture and religion to migration, ingredients, and recipes to carry the lessons forward, far and wide. Privileged to be her student and fan, and lucky to be her friend, I cook this recipe from her family’s table with delight. It’s a great greens bonanza from Jessica’s Grandmother’s kitchen, a mighty pot of greens with which to enjoy cornbread or biscuits, salad or steak, salmon or spoon bread. I’m partial to turnip greens, but Jessica’s grandmother tripled the goodness, mixing together bitey mustard greens, turnip greens, and lots of the classic, collards. Jessica remembers the enhancements of hot sauce, chopped onions, and vinegar, and the flavor of Grandma Harris’s Greens: “They were fantastic.”
4 pounds mixed greens (collards, mustard greens, and turnip greens)
8 strips bacon
6 cups water
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Vinegar, such as balsamic or apple cider
Rinse the greens well in a large bowl or stockpot of cold water. Draint them well and then trim them, paring away any thick stems and yellowed edges. Tear or cut all the leaves into bite-sized pieces and set aside.
In a large stock pot, cook the bacon over medium heat until it has surrendered its fat and become curly, fragrant, and nicely browned. Remove the bacon and set aside, leaving the bacon grease coating the bottom of the pot.
Pour the water into the pot and add the greens. Place over medium-high heat and bring to a lively boil. Meanwhile, coarsely chop the cooked bacon and add it to the pot.
When the water has reached a full boil, reduce the heat to maintain a gentle simmer and stir well. Cover the pot and cook, stirring now and then, until the greens are tender and the water has reached a handsome, golden-green hue, about 2 hours. Add the salt and pepper and stir well. Serve hot or warm.