Saturday, January 1, 2011

Hoppin' John

Welcome to 2011!

This is a black-eyed pea and rice pilaf from the Southern U.S. that is traditionally served on New Year's Day in the hopes of bringing good luck for the coming year. Not being one to tempt fate, I like to try and cook it on New Year's Day too. An Italian friend of mine just told me that lentils are the traditional good luck dish for his family -- this puts me in a gastronomic dilema, since lentils AND black-eyed peas in the same day is really going to be pushing things, but I don't see that I have much choice now. Tomorrow should be a very interesting day.

There's always a risk when writing about a regional speciality that someone who actually lives there will find fault with your method or ingredients (this is especially true when you've never actually been there). But, being a damn-the-torpedoes kind of guy, I'll charge ahead anyway. I'm not completely reckless though, so I did sift through all of the Hoppin' John recipes I have on hand, finally settling on the one from The Joy of Cooking. This book marks 80 years in print in 2011, so I figure that if there was some problem with the authenticity of the recipe in there, it would have been long ago fixed to the general liking of the majority of Southerners. Let's hope so, anyway.

There are two basic steps to this recipe. You cook the peas, then you make the pilaf. The first thing to do is get your peas soaking. Put 1 1/4 cups of black-eyed peas in a big bowl and let them soak overnight -- remember to check for stones as you put them in the bowl. If your house gets a little rowdy on New Year's Eve, you may want to tuck this bowl away in a safe place out of the general mayhem.

The recipe takes about 2 hours to finish cooking, so if you start around 10 the next day you're all set for lunch (allowing you to do your lentils for supper -- oh my). Two hours sounds like a long time, but there is minimal preparation, and even less attention required to pull this off, so it's a great dish if you're hanging around the house anyway (i.e. it gives you plenty of time to clean-up, moan, wonder what happened the night before, lie on the couch, or do whatever else you like to do on New Year's Day).

Start by draining the peas and putting them in a Dutch oven (or something you can put in the oven later with the lid on). Add 3 cups of water, 1 1/2 cups of chopped onion (about 1 big one), about a cup or so of chopped ham (mine is Christmas leftovers from the freezer), about a teaspoon of thyme, about a teaspoon of red pepper flakes, a few cloves of garlic if you like, and two bay leaves (look at those babies! They smell so wonderful -- please make a resolution to grow your own bay laurel this year!).

You just dump all this stuff into your pot and let it simmer away, uncovered, for about 45 minutes.

Once the peas are tender, drain them but make sure you save the cooking liquid. Take the bay leaves out at this point, and give your pot a quick rinse.

Next step is the rice part. You'll need a couple of slices of bacon, 1 1/4 cups of rice, a teaspoon of salt, some pepper, and enough chicken stock (or water) to top-up the reserved cooking liquid to 2 1/2 cups .

Fry the bacon in a pat of butter in your Dutch oven until the bacon gets crispy. Frying bacon in butter may seem a little excessive, but come on, it's New Year's Day, it's not like you've done anything to excess lately have you? Once the bacon looks nice, add the rice and stir that around until it's nicely coated with the butter and bacon fat.

Then add the 2 1/2 cups of liquid, the peas, and salt and pepper to taste. Bring the whole lot to a simmer while you heat the oven to 325. Once things are bubbling away merrily, put the lid on the pot and put it in the oven for about 25 minutes. (Don't worry if it looks a little like mud soup at this point, it will look better later -- truuuuuuuuuust me.)

Remove the pot from the oven and give your pilaf a stir. (You can add some parsley at this point if you like, but there's something about store-bought parsley that just doesn't turn my crank, so I left it out -- if there was some in the garden, you bet I'd use it). Now let it sit at least 10 and up to 30 minutes. (You can do the whole thing the day before too, just put it in the fridge once it has cooled enough, and then re-heat in a 275 oven until warm.)

Serve all on it's own, or as a side-dish with whatever other New Year's Day fare you have planned. It's great as is, or with a little dash of Tobasco. And it's also nice and soothing if you should have a delicate stomach for some reason (just sayin').

Enjoy, and all the best for 2011. Now, on to the lentils...


  1. my new year's resolution is to cook more, so here i am!! about to read through a bunch of your old posts...any you would single out as great for kids on a weeknight? good luck with those torpedoes tomorrow that you damned today!! :]

  2. I like that idea! I went through the list and pulled out stuff I think works on weeknights (albiet some of them were Fridays with a bit more time). Here you go! Toad in the hole (Nov); Carbonara, braised ribs (Oct); the Belgium one -- pork chops (Sept); Tuscan eggs (Aug); Bolognese (May); Broccoli, cacio e pepe (April); and steamed fish, belgian stew, chicken in a pot (March). The good thing about the last two is you need a Dutch oven, so it's a great excuse to go get one if you don't have one already! Happy cookin'! (Oh, and i think there is a pizza one in there somewhere -- kids really like "make your own pizza" night!)

  3. found it! 'Za in August. Bon appetit!