Saturday, January 01, 2011

Hoppin'John for a Happy New Year

Southerners eat black-eyed peas a lot. They also eat smoked pork frequently, and rice.

Growing up in the South, I got everything but the rice. My mother was from Ireland; rice and spaghetti (whoever heard of "pasta" back then?) weren't on the menu. If I, as the house cook, put them on, I had to also haul out the bag of potatoes for my Irish uncles. So mostly, we didn't eat rice.

Other than that, Mother loved soul food. Greens and fatback? Yum. Black-eyed peas? Sure, as long as you cooked some potatoes. Back then, black-eyed peas were mostly canned and not very appetizing. Sometimes Mother's friends would give us fresh ones -- they were like another food entirely from the canned variety.

We ate pork more frequently in its fresh variety than the smoked versions. Except for bacon, when we could afford it. However, American bacon was/is pathetic. Mostly we didn't bother except to make drippings.

So enough background already. Here's the deal on Hoppin' John: If you eat it on New Year's Day, you'll have a prosperous year. Beans are for prosperity, the rice for fertility, and the greens for color and good health.

Here's our New Year's Day Hoppin' John recipe in its current metamorphosis....

First thing to remember is to prepare this a day or two ahead. Much better than fresh out of the pot, though if you don't get to it ahead of time, it's still mighty fine right out of the pot.

Shopping List

Get you some ham hocks. Three minimum, but more is better. Hocks are best because they have those gelatinous tendons which will make the broth taste wonderful. Not much meat on 'em so you may want to add ham later for extra protein if you like your meals with plenty of meat.

Stop by the produce department and get a pound or two of greens: collards, turnip, mustard, etc. Or if price is no object, get the packages of washed and prepared cooking greens in the bagged salad area. Not spinach, though. It's too delicate.

While you're there, grab a bunch of fresh parsley. If you can't get fresh, just skip it. Try to find flat leaf parsley. I never did understand the point of the curly kind. Not as flavorful nor as deeply green. I'll bet it has a lot less Vitamin K, too. However, sometimes you have to settle for what you can get.

Get a yellow onion if you don't have any on hand. In this case, if you have dried onion flakes at home, they'll do fine instead.

In the frozen food section, get two bags of black-eyed peas. Don't buy the fresh ones. They put some kind of preservative on them that tastes yucky. If you have to use fresh, I'll tell you how to handle them when we get to the cooking part.


1. Start with the HAM HOCKS since they take the longest.

Rinse them well under running water and then put in a pot big enough to fit them. Cover with cold water and bring to a boil. Let boil for a minute or two and then dump into a colander and rinse well. Put them back into their cooking pot with more fresh water to cover.

When the hocks come to a boil, reduce to a friendly simmer and add the following (all are approximate amounts since I don't actually measure anything. Besides, it depends on how many hocks you have in the pot. Let's pretend you have three and you can increase these amounts if it's more):

1 teaspoon coriander seeds (crushed or ground are okay)
1 teaspoon celery seeds (same goes for them)
a bay leaf or two
a big, fat clove of garlic, cut in half
1/4 teaspoon (or so) red pepper flakes
1/2 medium yellow onion, or sprinkle dried onion flakes over the pot real vigorously until it looks like the equivalent.
2 Tablespoons cider vinegar

Let that cook, covered, on simmer for a few hours. The liquid will reduce quite a bit. For the first hour, replenish it but then let it begin to reduce but keep it soupy. Be sure to turn the hocks so all parts of them get their time in the simmering bath.

2. Sometime while the hocks are cooking, rinse the PARSLEY and pull off the stems (I save the stems in the freezer for a bouquet garni for soup later on, but if you're not a frugal cook, don't bother). Grab the leaves in bunches and use scissors to chop them into a bowl. Coarse chop is okay. Set aside.

3. Cook enough RICE to suit yourself. I usually add bacon drippings for flavoring, but that's just my Southern background. This can be done the day before and reheated easily enough. I prefer a pilaf kind of rice, so I cook the rice on medium low for several minutes in the hot oil or bacon drippings, stirring all the while with a fork. You've sirred enough when the rice grains have become transparent. Add boiling water or broth, put on the lid, and cook on low for 15 minutes. Turn off heat and let it sit for five minutes. Microwaved rice is good, too: I use a glass pyrex bowl with a salad plate to cover. It seems to take longer to cook this way so add 1/3 cup of extra water and punch in 18 minutes on high. Again, let it sit covered for a few minutes.

4. How do the hocks look? Are they beginning to fall apart? That means the water is taking up their flavor and you're ready to add the black-eyed peas. If the water is low, add more, along with the peas*. You want it soupy because the peas will absorb the liquid. Black-eyed peas take a while to become soft, especially when being cooked with smoked meat, which usually has added salt. So allow for extra time; they will soften eventually. Stir the peas around well, making sure they're covered by liquid. Put the lid back on but keep checking on the liquid.

*if you had to buy fresh peas, rinse well and then put into boiling water. Boil for two minutes and then rinse under cold running water for a minute or so. Set aside till hocks are cooked. This will get rid of whatever preservative they've put on the darn things.

5. Once the peas are in, it's time for the GREENS. My preference is young collards, Brazilian style. Wash the collards and pile the leaves into stacks. Water will cling to them, which is all the liquid you need. Coarsely shred the stacks of leaves and set aside.

Cut two or three fat cloves of garlic (can't ever have too much garlic for this dish so use more if you want) into thin slices. Heat on medium (or a bit lower) a pan big enough to hold the leaves, adding a scant 1/4 cup of olive oil to the warm pan. After it is hot enough to fry the garlic without burning it, add the slices and stir until they're golden. Pick out with a wooden spoon as they turn gold -- some will go faster than others. Put them on a plate, but don't drain the oil from them. When they've all been removed, add the shredded collard greens. The collards will spit and sizzle. Sprinkle with salt (stay on medium heat) and keep stirring them down until they are limp and cooked enough for your tastes (this is why you need young collards for this dish. The big old leaves don't ever soften). This takes less than five minutes, depending on how much greens you have. Remove from heat, sprinkle with more salt if necessary. When ready to serve, put the cooked garlic slices back in and distribute. They will soften a bit but retain their flavor. This dish can be eaten hot or at room temperature. It keeps well and can be reheated, but if cooking for later, save the garlic separately until you're ready to serve.

Okay, check the black-eyed peas. Are they soft? Is there still a thick liquid in the bottom? (if not, add water!) They're done! Turn off the pot and add the parsley you'd chopped before. Cover the pot for a minute or two so the parsley can wilt in the liquor.


As I said, these can all be done the day before. And they taste better if they can set overnight. But when the time comes to actually eat this good luck dish, here you go:

Some people stir the rice in with the beans and hocks; others serve them separately. It just depends on what particular Hoppin' John school you went to.

Some take the trouble to pull out the hocks, glean what meat they can from the bones and throw away the bones and skin.

Some save the skin to fry up later.

Many people, especially South Carolinians, would consider the amount of red pepper flakes an anemic addition not worth bothering about. They go straight to the hot sauce.

If you're serving buffet style, just set out separate bowls and let people decide how they want to arrange the three ingredients. Me, I stack 'em, with rice on the bottom and greens on the top.

If you have a dog, share the wealth with those bones, particularly the larger ones. I don't know how safe the smaller, knuckle-type bones would be but the big ones look okay. Of course, if you do have a dog, you don't need my advice...

A note about Comments: I closed them. Can't do a universal block, but I'll be doing each post if I remember. My fatigue levels are such that monitoring comments would be impossible.