Around the world different cultures have their special traditions for welcoming the New Year and to ensure good luck. According to Jessica B. Harris in Wednesday's New York Times, "In Spain, grapes eaten as the clock turns midnight -- one for each chime -- foretell whether the year will be sweet or sour. In Austria, the New Year's table is decorated with marzipan pigs to celebrate wealth, progress and prosperity. Germans savor carp and place a few fish scales in their wallets for luck. And for African-Americans and in the Southern United States, it's all about black-eyed peas."
Black-eyed peas' most popular expression is Hoppin' John, a steaming bowl of beans, rice, and pork especially popular in coastal South Carolina and Georgia. It probably originated with black slaves from the Caribbean brought in through Charleston around which there were large rice plantations. It is still very popular among the Gullah on the Carolina coastal islands where Hoppin' John is widely served on New Year's Day for good luck. It is believed that eating beans on New Year's Day will bring better eats in the year to come. According to one tradition, a coin is added to the pot and whoever gets the coin will get rich.
There are several poetic explanations for how the dish got its name. One claims that it got its name in the early 1800s when it was peddled on Charleston streets by a one-legged black man named John. Likewise there are a number of explanations for why beans symbolize good luck. Some ascribe their magical properties to fables like Jack And the Beanstalk, others call it a symbol of fertility, others say the black-eye saved the South from starvation during the Civil War.
I've kept this recipe simple and traditional, but there are numerous variations, so feel free to riff on it. I've been known to add red pepper and thyme. To modernize it, hold the green peppers until you add the rice to retain their brightness and crunch. In the original recipe the peppers kind of disintegrate. If you hold them until the end they add life.
Makes. 10 bowls
Preparation time. 3 hours
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 smoked ham hocks
1 green bell pepper, coarsely chopped
1 large onion, coarsely chopped
4 cloves of garlic, pressed or coarsely chopped
2 teaspoons hot pepper flakes
3 bay leaves
4 cups chicken broth
1 can (15 ounces) black-eyed peas, drained and rinsed or 1/4 pound dried beans
1 cup white rice
1/4 teaspoon table salt
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
About the ham hocks. Many grocers sell smoked ham hocks. They add flavor and a rich tactile sensation from the skin and connective tissue and the marrow which dissolve while it cooks. Some of them have very little meat. Select two with meat. If you can't find hocks, you can substitute 1/2 pound smoked ham, bacon, or leftover pulled pork.
1) Click here to read my article, The Zen of Beans, for tips on working with beans and equivalents for dry, canned, and cooked beans. Decide which you will use. If you plan to use dried beans, follow the instructions there for soaking them. If you plan to use canned beans, move on to the next step.
2) Get a large pot hot and add the oil. Add the ham hock, onion, green pepper, garlic, pepper flakes, and the bay leaf. If you can't find a ham hock, you can use bacon, just skip the vegetable oil and start by cooking the bacon in the bottom of the pot and pour off all the bacon grease except 2 tablespoons.
3) When the onions are limp, add the chicken broth and bring to a boil. Add the beans, bring back to a boil and dial it back to a simmer quickly. Do not boil for more than a minute or two. Simmer for at least an hour.
4) Remove the bay leaf and if you use ham hocks, cut off the meat, add it to the pot, and discard the bones and skin.
5) Add the rice and simmer with the cover on for about 25 minutes or until the rice is tender and most of the liquid is absorbed. Serve with salt and pepper at table. Hoppin' John gets a lift from fresh ground pepper at the table.
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