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A New Year's Day Frugal Feast Of Hopping John: Meatless Monday

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Kissing at midnight on New Year's Eve is great -- hell, kissing anytime is great -- but dishing up hopping john on New Year's Day is when the new year really begins for me. Hopping john is a new year's day tradition in the south, but its ingredients -- rice, collard greens and black-eyed peas -- trace their origins back to Africa. So do the people who created it.

Hopping john is a slave dish. It began out of necessity. The greens were foraged, the black-eyed peas came from crops the slaves cultivated themselves. Plantation owners couldn't be bothered to grow them or eat them. Beans were po' folk food.

And that was a problem? For me, it's a selling point. Legumes are powerhouses of plant-based protein and they're cheap. Hopping john offers a frugal feast. It is the people's food, the food of the 99 percent. And it tastes good -- good enough so the dish migrated from slave shacks to plantation tables.

You can tart up hopping john and serve it on bone china plates, but its beauty remains in its simple origins. Take a few cheap ingredients, add love, pepper, and sit down to a dish a greater than the sum of its parts that will feed everyone. You could eat it alone, with just your bleary-eyed self for company, but when it is eaten with others, the magic of hopping john reveals itself. Rice and beans seem to expand to feed a crowd, and that invites laughter, talk, stories that feed the spirit and stroke the soul.

No wonder eating hopping john on new year's day is said to brings good luck. It's also said to bring wealth -- the black-eyed peas represent coins, the collards mean greenbacks. I can't promise it'll do either one. What I can promise is this humble dish is restorative and soothing, especially after the season of wretched excess. The rice and peas help soak up any booze-related queasiness from your wild and wicked New Year's Eve, the black-eyed peas, like all legumes, provide lean protein and fiber, and the greens provide a goodly dose of antioxidants to aid recovery. Think of hopping john as a natural detox that actually tastes good.

Make it for luck, make it for cheap, for health, for a hangover cure, but when you make hopping john, you're doing more than making dinner, you're keeping alive a great culinary and cultural tradition. Mark Bittman, the less meatarian who knows how to cook everything, says if you learn to make only one dish, it should be rice and beans. "It's the most important dish in the world." It's the very essence of soul food -- it fills the belly, lifts the spirit and connects us by way of the stomach and the heart to the past and to each other.

May 2012 be abundant and spectacular, may you begin it sans hangover and with a pot of hopping john ready to greet you New Year's Day.

Hopping John

Make it on New Year's Eve or even the day before. Flavor improves over time and hopping john reheats like a dream. Serve with hot sauce for a happy, lucky, abundant New Year.

1 cup black eyed peas
3 cups of water
6 cloves garlic
1 dried hot pepper
1 bay leaf
2 cups vegetable broth
1 cup brown rice
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
1 jalapeno, chopped
3 ribs celery, chopped
1 big bunch collard greens, sliced into thin ribbons
juice of 1 lemon
sea salt and fresh ground pepper to taste

Soak beans in a bowl of cold water for 4 hours or up to overnight. Drain peas.

In a large pot, bring 3 cups of water to boil over high heat. Add black-eyed peas, 2 cloves of garlic (whole), pepper and bay leaf. Skim off any floating beans.

Reduce heat to low. Simmer beans uncovered for an hour and a half until beans are tender, not mushy.

Add brown rice and the vegetable broth. Cover and simmer over low heat for 20 minutes. Turn off the heat, but leave the pot on the burner.

Meanwhile, heat olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add onion, jalapeno, celery and the remaining 4 garlic cloves, chopped. Saute for about 5 minutes, stirring, until the vegetables soften.

Reduce heat to medium. Add greens by the handful, and cook until wilted, stirring occasionally, about 10 minutes.

Fluff rice and beans, remove whole garlic, dried pepper and bay leaf. Fold in collard mixture. Squeeze in lemon juice and season with salt and pepper.

Serves 6.

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