Hope and Hoppin’ John for a Crowd

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Out with the old, in with the new! I much prefer New Year’s Day to new Year’s Eve. For me, New Year’s Day is when nostalgia turns to hope (or renewed delusion).

And what better to share with friends than hope and a pot of Hoppin’ John—a traditional Southern dish made with black-eyed peas and rice that is said to bring abundance and good luck?  Served with leafy greens and cornbread, the meal is said to call in a prosperous new year. The black-eyed peas symbolize copper or pennies, while the greens and corn bread represent money and gold.   It is also said that adding pork represents “moving forward” as a pig only forages in this direction.

Jessica Harris, a wonderful culinary historian who has spent the past 30 years traveling through six continents and a thousand cities, tracing the influence of African foods on the Americas, used to serve this dish at her annual New Year’s Day Open House when she would introduce her parents to her friends.  She would make a big pot that would serve up to 60 people along with roast pork with crackling, collard greens, and a mix of okra, corn, and tomatoes.

In an article for the New York Times, Jessica writes on the origin of the dish:

 “No one seems completely sure where the name Hoppin’ John comes from. Variations run from the clearly apocryphal suggestion that this was the name of a waiter at a local restaurant who walked with a limp, to the plausible, a corruption of pois pigeon (pigeon peas in French). Culinary historian Karen Hess in her masterwork, The Carolina Rice Kitchen: The African Connection, offers a twenty-plus page dissertation on everything from the history of the dish to recipe variations to a number of suggestions for the origin of its name, ranging from Malagasy to ancient Arabic. The only thing that all seem to agree on about Hoppin’ John is that the dish is emblematic of South Carolina and is composed of rice and some kind of pea.”

The black-eyed pea or black-eyed bean, legume, is a subspecies of the cowpea also known as field peas. Field peas are thought to be native to Africa and were brought to the United States in early Colonial times, during the slave trade. They are much hardier than their “English” cousins as they are drought resistant and easily adaptable to different types of soils. After the peas were harvested, the plants were left for grazing cows hence the names “field peas” and “cowpeas.”” As for why black-eyed peas are associated with luck Jessica writes:

 Just as nobody is sure of the origin of the name Hoppin’ John, no one seems quite certain why the dish has become associated with luck, or New Year’s. Some white Southerners claim that black-eyed peas saved families from starvation during the Union Army’s siege of Vicksburg in the Civil War. “The Encyclopedia of Jewish Food” suggests that it may come from Sephardic Jews, who included the peas in their Rosh Hashanah menu as a symbol of fertility and prosperity.

For African-Americans, the connection between beans and fortune is surely complex. Perhaps, because dried black-eyed peas can be germinated, having some extra on hand at the New Year guaranteed sustenance provided by a new crop of the fast-growing vines. The black-eyed pea and rice combination also forms a complete protein, offering all of the essential amino acids. During slavery, one ensured of such nourishment was lucky indeed.”

There are as many versions of Hoppin’ John as there are cooks depending on the region, availability of ingredients and family traditions.

But there seem to be two basic methodologies:  The first calls for the rice to be cooked with the peas. The second calls for the peas and rice to be cooked separately and then mixed together at a final stage prior to serving.  While Jessica prefers to cook her rice and peas together, when cooking a big batch, she agrees that it is better to cook the broth peas separately and spoon it over the rice.

In this big batch variation by esteemed cookbook writer Rick Rodgers from his upcoming book The Big Book of Side Dishes (Ballantine 2014), Rick creates a delicious ham broth that can be cooled, covered, and refrigerated for up to 3 days ahead of time. Rick recommends serving this dish with boldly flavored main dishes including smoked or roasted meats {such as a ham!}, spicy sausages, and sautéed greens and vegetables.

One final tradition: On New Year’s Day, in some families, a dime is placed in the Hoppin’  John with the promise of more luck for the finder.  On that, writes Jessica, “ The thought of cracking a tooth makes me think that this may not be the best idea. Try it if you wish.”

Big Batch Notes: For 8 to 10, Rick used a stock pot (12-qt) for the stock, and a 6-qt large saucepan/Dutch oven for the John. For the double, he recommends using the same stockpot (12-qt) for both.  Make the stock, strain, and then use the same washed pot for the beans. Also if making the broth ahead of time, make sure you have room to store it in your refrigerator.

HOPPIN’ JOHN

This big-batch version, from the upcoming book, The Big Book of Side Dishes by Rick Rodgers  (Ballantine 2014) is a hearty, full-flavored dish that will warm you on the coldest January day. Please note that the beans need to be soaked 8 to 12 hours before cooking. Have your butcher halve the ham bones for you.

Make ahead notes: The ham broth and its meat can be be cooled, covered, and refrigerated for 3 days. The Hoppin’ John is best made right before serving.

Prep Time: 30 minutes

Cooking Time: about 2 ½ hours

Screen Shot 2013-12-31 at 10.05.45 AM1.  To make the ham broth:  Heat the oil in a large pot over medium-high heat.  Add the onion, carrot, and celery and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened, about 3 minutes.  Add the garlic and cook until fragrant, about 1 minute.  Add the ham hocks, broth, and 1½ quarts (3 quarts for the larger batch) cold water.  Bring to a boil over high heat, skimming off the foam that rises to the surface.  Reduce the heat to low and simmer until the meat on the hocks is tender enough to be cut from the bones, about 1½ hours.

2. Strain the broth into a large bowl, reserving the ham hocks but discarding the other solids.  Cut the meat from the hocks, discarding the bones, and chop it into ¼-inch pieces. Measure the broth; you should have about 1¾ quarts (3 ½ quarts for the big batch).  (The broth and meat can be separately cooled, covered, and refrigerated for up to 3 days.)

3.  To make the hoppin’ John: Heat the oil in a large pot over medium heat.  Add the bacon and cook, stirring occasionally, until crisp and browned, about 8 minutes.  Using a slotted spoon, transfer the bacon to paper towels to drain, leaving the fat in the pot.

4.  Add the onion, celery, and bell pepper to the pot.  Cook, stirring occasionally, until softened, about 3 minutes.  Stir in the garlic and cook until fragrant, about 1 minute.  Add the drained beans and 6 cups of the broth and bring to a boil over high heat.  (Set the remaining broth aside at room temperature.) Reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer, stirring occasionally, until the peas are barely tender, 30 to 45 minutes.  (The exact time for cooking the peas will depend on their age and softness after soaking.)

5.  Stir in the drained tomatoes, diced ham meat, salt, and hot sauce and return to a boil over high heat. (See Note) Stir in the rice.  Reduce the heat to medium and cook at a steady simmer, stirring occasionally, until the rice is tender and has absorbed almost all of the cooking liquid, about 20 minutes. If the rice has absorbed the liquid before it is done, add some of the reserved broth.  (Leftover broth can be covered and frozen for up to 2 months; use it for soups, especially split pea soup.)

6.  Remove from the heat and cover the pot.  Let stand for 5 to 10 minutes to finish cooking and soaking up the liquid.   Transfer to a huge bowl, fluffing the rice as you do so.  Sprinkle with the scallions and reserved bacon and serve hot, with hot sauce passed on the side.

Note: If you wish, you can cook the rice separately and serve the pea stew on top.  In this case, cook the the rice according to the package directions. For 2 cups of raw rice, use 2 cups water, 2 cups Ham Broth, and 1 teaspoon salt.  For 4 cups of rice, use 4 cups water, 4 cups Ham Broth, and 2 teaspoons salt.)

** If you want to learn more about African cooking in the Americas I suggest you check out one of Jessica’s twelve books. In addition to being an accomplished author, she has been a National Board member of the American Institute of Wine and Food and a board member of the Caribbean Culinary Federation, the New York Chapter of Les Dames D’Escoffier, and the Southern Foodways Alliance where she was a founding member and also served as chair of the planning and then programming committees. Currently, she is a Board member of the Ogden Museum of Southern Art, The New Orleans Afrikan American Film Festival, an advisory board member of the Southern Food and Beverage Museum and the New Orleans Edible School Yard.

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1 Comment

Filed under Big Feeds & Feasts, Cooks, Chefs, and Kitchen Hacks, Recipes

One response to “Hope and Hoppin’ John for a Crowd

  1. What a great meal idea for a New Year’s party or any winter party. Not to mention it’s interesting to read about the origins of this dish.

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