Peas and Rice Make the New Year Nice

In the south, they say luck and fortune is on your side if Hoppin' John stops by on New Year's Day. The exact origins of the name remain fuzzy, but the culinary legacy of melding field peas (of which black-eyes are one type) and rice are crystal clear, a direct link to the African slave trade, particularly in rice-rich South Carolina.

It's been said that field peas represent coins, clearing the way for fortune to enter one's home (perhaps the only way to keep hope alive for better days ahead), and you'd double your chances with a pot of collard greens, which represent cash, aka greenbacks.

Although I wasn't raised with this tradition up north, I must have enjoyed it in a previous life because I wouldn't have New Year's Day any other way. It makes sense to me to channel my hopes and aspirations through a simmering pot of peas and rice as our brothers and sisters did three centuries ago. I look at a pot of peas and rice as a bridge between the past -- honoring those who died tilling the land -- and the future -- the year ahead, brimming with possibilities. If nothing else, with a pot of peas and rice, I'm nurturing those around me (Hoppin' John is just meant to be shared) with a complete protein, and that sense of nourishment spreads like a grease fire, dancing on the stove, onto the kitchen walls and between us, as we slurp from our bowls. It is a force that is bigger than us all, one of good will and loving kindness, strong enough to overcome evil, if only for a few minutes.

Peas and rice don't just make things nice -- it's good karma.

Happy New Year!

Hoppin' John

There are many schools of thought on how to season a pot of Hoppin' John (ham hocks, tomatoes, onion, garlic), but most cooks agree on these few things: Soak those peas today, for at least four hours, and use long-grain rice. The rest is up to you.

There's also difference of opinion about cooking time for the peas, anywhere from 40 minutes to two hours. Unfortunately, much of this depends on the age of dried peas, which in the supermarket, are older than you think. In my experience, field peas are fairly quick cooking (often under one hour), but keep in mind you may experience timing variations.

Should dried peas be out of stock (or you run out of time), frozen peas make a reliable back-up plan, with Hoppin' John on the table in one hour, start to finish. Below, my notes for how I do my Hoppin' John.

1 cup field peas, soaked in enough water to cover, for at least four hours, and drained
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
4 slices thick-cut bacon (or slab bacon or 1 ham hock)
1 medium yellow onion, coarsely chopped
1/2 habanero chile or chipotle chile, diced
salt and pepper to taste
water or stock of choice
1 cup long-grain rice

Heat oil over medium heat. If using ham hock, add and brown on both sides. If using bacon, eliminate oil and render until crisp, about five minutes. If not using meat, eliminate and sweat onion and chile in oil. When using bacon, I like to remove crisp bacon and reserve for garnish.

Add peas and liquid (should be at least one inch above beans), and bring up to a boil. Cook at a boil for a five minutes, then reduce heat, cover and simmer, until beans have arrived at desired tenderness. This could take a minimum of 35 minutes and a maximum of one hour. Add rice, plus 1 additional cup of liquid, return lid, and cook for 20 minutes, without lifting lid. Season to taste. Rice and peas should be moist but most liquid should be absorbed.

Makes enough for six bowls' worth.

Some of my favorite garnishes: Chopped scallions, diced tomatoes, a splash of soy sauce, hot sauce, shredded cheddar.

After several attempts (and screwing up) cornbread, I'm giving this version a try, from cookbook author and southern culinary scholar John Martin Taylor, a Charlestonian who now makes Washington D.C. home. After all, we need a lil' cornbread to sop up the juices.

By Kim ODonnel |  December 31, 2007; 10:23 AM ET African-American History , Winter Holidays
Previous: Twelve Under-$20 Ways to Snack Well on New Year's Eve | Next: What Do You Want to Eat This Year?


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since nobody else is posting i'll go completely off topic....
i have been playing around with your coconut & curry rice recipe. i just don't seem to be able to get it right. i think it's the coconut. i'm buying the can of coconut milk which i boil the rice in but there just doesn't seem to be any flavor. i don't want to have the rice overly sweet but i'd like to balance the heat of the curry with the sweet of the coconut. i don't really like the texture of shredded coconut but will that disolve by being boiled with the rice?

Posted by: quark | December 31, 2007 11:11 AM

i like to put just a touch of rosemary in my black-eyed peas. i also do fried cabbage, which like collards, is supposed to represent cash. and don't forget the cornbread!

Posted by: g | December 31, 2007 11:29 AM

For good luck my mom a Polish American always served fresh pork and sauerkraut on New Years Day for good luck. I maintain the tradition

Posted by: Anonymous | December 31, 2007 12:25 PM

My NC-born mother always did this, even though none of the rest of us would touch greens or black-eyeds. Then anyway...I've come to enjoy them now and have converted DH's family to celebrating New Year's this way.

Posted by: Midwest | December 31, 2007 12:34 PM

HAPPY 2008 TO ALL THE OTHER FOODIES! I make mine by cooking a smoked turkey leg in chicken stock in the crock pot until soft then shredding the meat and discarding the bones and fat and removing the fat from the liquid. I then add in the peas to the crock pot and cook until almost done (adding more liquid if necessary) then add in chopped red pepper, chopped green pepper, chopped onion, diced garlic, chopped celery and chopped jalapeno pepper and cook until done. When done I add in some cooked rice and mix together and enjoy on New Year's Day and freeze leftovers to enjoy later. Another plus for financial wealth in the New Year is to cook up some fresh collards which I do with a little red onion and garlic and chili peppers. I also madk the vegan cornbread featured in the Post - makes for a lovely dinner today.

Posted by: Silver Spring | January 1, 2008 6:22 PM

My dad is from Texas, so I grew up with the black-eyed pea tradition even though I lived in the north. However, now that I'm cooking them on my own, I try to vary how I use them, with a new recipe every year. One year I put them in chili. Last year I did a black-eyed pea and coconut milk stew from Marcus Samuelsson's African cookbook. This year I cooked them up in a fritatta with zucchini, onions, and lots of garlic.

Posted by: Julie | January 2, 2008 10:47 AM

Kim, last year my sister gave me the Lee Bros cookbook, and I made good on a resolution and cooked from it yesterday. Their Hoppin John was very good; with the addition of crushed tomatoes it was very similar to red rice (another wonderful southern dish). But I do have a question - neither your recipe nor theirs called for bay leaf. My understanding is that bay leaf has an enzyme that makes it much easier to digest legumes. I went ahead and threw one in. Do you know anything about the bay leaf/legume link?

Posted by: conniecook | January 2, 2008 2:29 PM

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