Like so many Pennsylvanians of German descent, I grew up with the unmistakable perfume of sauerkraut wafting from the kitchen on New Year’s Day. Despite my mother’s insistence that “It’ll put hair on your chest,” (as if that was an enticement), I have never shared her passion for the stuff.
When I struck out on my own, I turned to beans and rice as my culinary lottery ticket. With each bite, my piggy bank would swell and I would be lucky in love and life, or so I thought. I did end up marrying a guy from the south, where a pot of Hoppin’ John (black-eyed peas and rice) is an absolute, nonnegotiable must for starting the new year on the right track.
Nobody’s really sure how Hoppin’ John got its name, but we do know that the black-eyed pea, a type of cowpea, has west African roots that are at least 3,000 years old. It was among the crops that enslaved Africans brought on their forced passage to the Americas and remains a revered culinary elder among African Americans.
Depending on whom you talk to, the peas represent coins, clearing the way for prosperity. A similar notion is shared among Italians, whose designated lucky charm is the disc-shaped lentil, one of the first-known domesticated crops dating to the Stone Age.
Whether or not you see the resemblance to coins is neither right nor wrong; what matters is what resonates for you and results in the ritual, bringing you closer to the stove. After all, what better way to kick off a new year — and a new decade — than by nourishing your loved ones with a simple, home-cooked meal.
Below are some good-luck dishes traditionally prepared for New Year’s.
SMOKIN’ HOPPIN’ JOHN
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 medium onion, chopped coarsely
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 cup uncooked medium or long-grain rice
½ teaspoon smoked paprika
1 16-ounce bag frozen black-eyed peas
2 to 3 cups water or your favorite broth
¼ cup beer you like to drink (optional)
1 chipotle chile in adobo sauce, minced
1 teaspoon salt or soy sauce
Heat oil in a heavy-bottomed pot. Add onions and garlic, cooking until the onions are slightly softened, about 5 minutes. Add rice, stirring until completely coated. Toast for 1 minute. Stir in smoked paprika.
Add peas, two cups of the water and the chipotle chile. (Not using beer? Substitute ¼ cup water.) Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to low, cover and cook for 25 minutes without lifting the lid. After 25 minutes, check rice to see if it’s cooked and how moist it is. The mixture should be moist but not soupy.
Season with salt or soy sauce. Keep covered until ready to serve.
Serve hot with any of the following fixings: chopped scallions, cherry tomatoes, fresh parsley, shredded cheddar, hot sauce, crumbled bacon or sausage.
- Seasoning black-eyed peas with pork is traditional but not necessary. You can crisp bacon and render the fat or use a ham hock to season the beans. Your call.
- I am a fan of frozen black-eyed peas, which are widely available in supermarkets.
- For dried peas, allow for extra time (about 2 hours) to soak and cook (about an hour) before you proceed with the Hoppin’ John. One cup of dried black-eyed peas yields nearly three cups cooked, more than you will need for this recipe.
LENTILS AND RICE
Makes 4 to 6 servings.
Throughout the Middle East, you’ll find countless versions and spellings (mejadra, mudardara, mujadara, to name a few) of this ancient and iconic dish of lentils and rice topped with crispy onions. Because lentils do not require soaking, this is a good starter dish for legumes-cooking newbies.
4 1/2 cups cold water
1 cup brown or green lentils
1 clove garlic, peeled and left whole
1 1/4 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon ground allspice
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1 cup medium or long-grain brown rice
2 medium onions
1/4 cup olive oil
Prepare the lentils and rice: In a large saucepan, add three cups of cold water, lentils and garlic clove. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to low, cover and cook at a simmer, about 20 minutes. Lentils will not be completely cooked through; that’s OK. Season with salt, cumin, allspice and black pepper. Add an additional 1 ½ cups of water and bring to a boil. Add brown rice and give everything a quick stir. Cover and reduce heat to low, until water has been nearly absorbed, 30 to 35 minutes. If a lot of water remains, continue to cook for an additional 5 to 10 minutes. Turn off the heat and keep covered.
While the lentils and rice cook, caramelize the onions: Peel two medium onions, cut in half and thinly slice (about four cups). Heat a 10- or 12-inch skillet over medium-high heat. Add olive oil, tilting until the surface is completely coated. Add onions, turning until completely coated. Reduce heat to medium-low, cooking the onions until reduced and jam-like, about 35 minutes. It’s OK if the ends get crispy.
To serve: Fluff the lentil-rice mixture with a fork. Place the onions on top. Reheats well and keeps for a few days in the refrigerator.