12.29.15 Get Lucky

Hoppin john 790 xxx
photos by gluttonforlife

Eat poor that day, eat rich the rest of the year. Rice for riches and peas for peace. So goes the saying about Hoppin’ John, the classic Low Country dish of rice and peas that’s a New Year’s day tradition in the South. Consuming a plateful is thought to guarantee a prosperous year filled with good fortune. The peas symbolize coins and the greens served on the side—usually collards—recall good old dollar bills. Add cornbread and you’ve got gold. Culinary gold, anyway.

As much as I cling to the idea of a random universe, I'm actually pretty superstitious. I've lived my life in fear of tempting the Fates: Clotho, who spins the thread of life; Lachesis, who chooses one's lot in life and measures how long it will be; and Atropos, who with her shears cuts the thread of life. Like some old gypsy woman, I avoid calling attention to my good fortune or the things I covet most because I dread attracting the evil eye. I remember my mother telling me about a moment she had, an ordinary Northern California moment of driving the car along a sunny road, when she was seized with the notion that her life was so wonderful—perfect, really—and then felt a chill pass over her heart as she realized this must be too good to be true. Shortly thereafter, my father's stomach cancer announced itself and my mother's own battle with a benign tumor on her spine kicked into high gear.

I masquerade as a rational being, but deep within I harbor superstitions worthy of a medieval sorceress. I hold my breath and lift my feet when we drive over railroad tracks. I say "rabbit, rabbit, rabbit" first thing on the first of every month. Because if there is such a thing as luck, I want some. What directs your hand to that winning ticket? Guides you into the path of your soulmate? Chance, fate, destiny, luck...I'll do whatever I can to tip the scale in my favor, won't you? So join me in embracing this bit of Southern lore on January 1st. C'mon, get lucky.

Hock 790 xxx
hock it

The origins of the name Hoppin’ John seem a little muddled, but it’s probably taken from a corruption of pois pigeons, the Creole term for black-eyed peas. This simple dish of peas and rice cooked with onion and pork has its roots in the pilaus of the African diaspora, and may have evolved from rice and bean mixtures that were the subsistence of slaves en route to the Americas. It has been traced to similar foods in West Africa, in particular the Senegalese dish known as thiebou niebe.

Hoppin’ John has long been the signature dish of the Carolina rice lands and, as such, falls squarely in the purview of Sean Brock, a South Carolina chef who has been doing the important and delicious work of reclaiming traditional Low-Country foodways. He has two restaurants in Charleston, Husk and McCrady’s, and a new cookbook, Heritage, that has garnered rave reviews. I fell in love with Sean watching Season 2 of Mind of a Chef, (available on Netflix). His passion, humility and vision are extraordinary. He travels regularly to Senegal to learn more about the West African roots of his cherished regional cuisine. So, when looking for a recipe for Hoppin' John, I went straight to the source.

Peas 790 xxx
peas for peace

Sean has worked with Glen Roberts of Anson Mills to revitalize many of the old varietals that defined early Southern cuisine. (I've mentioned Anson Mills before as a great resource for authentic and highly flavorful rice, beans, flours and sesame seeds.) In their online shop, you can order the finest Sea Island red peas—a kind of cow pea, like black-eyed peas but smaller and ruddier—and Carolina gold rice for your Hoppin’ John. But you can also just use black-eyed peas and long-grain white rice from the supermarket. As in all things, starting with the best quality ingredients has an impact on the final result, but there are some helpful tricks to maximize whatever you've got.

There’s really no one way to make Hoppin' John. Some cook the peas and rice together, some do it separately. Some flavor the dish with a ham hock, others with bacon or fatback. Sean’s recipe starts with a pork stock made by simmering ham hocks and bacon with vegetables and aromatics for 4 hours. He then cooks the peas in this fragrant brew, which is later used for making a thick gravy. The rice is cooked separately, with a technique that turns out perfectly plump and separate grains. The rice and peas are tossed together and drizzled with the velvety gravy. The result is sublime, if a bit labor intensive. For those desiring something a bit quicker, I've developed a simplified recipe that still delivers.

Draining 790 xxx
tender trap
Both recipes ask you to cook the peas and rice separately and I really do think it's worth the tiny extra effort. The peas cook quickly, especially if you remember to soak them overnight. I'm giving you a head start, so you can plan ahead for Thursday.
Cooked rice 790 xxx
separate but equal
Sean's technique for cooking the rice calls for you to simmer it in lots of water. When tender, it's drained, then rinsed in cold water and spread out on a baking sheet. It dries briefly in a low oven, where it's basted with butter until each grain is done to glistening perfection. (File this away as a foolproof way to make all kinds of rice.)
Gravy 790 xxx
the rest is...
One complaint that is frequently lodged against Hoppin' John is that it's bland. And I supposed it would be if you just heated up canned peas with some flavorless Uncle Ben's. But if you're layering wonderful smoked pork products (vegetarians, use kombu and dried shiitakes), heirloom peas and fresh vegetables, you're off to a good start. Buttery rice and piquant hot sauce (I recommend Crystal or Tabasco) add further dimension. For me, what really makes this dish, is the gravy. A cup of cooked peas is blended with a little butter and some of the peas' cooking liquid—the "pot likker"—until it's velvety smooth. This is brightened with cider vinegar and lots of black pepper. I could slurp it down by the spoonful.
 mixed 790 xxx
pot luck
Make a batch and invite some friends over to ring in 2015. Hoppin' John is not fancy, but it's soothing and restorative. (Good for a hangover.) Round out the meal with collards—there are a few different recipes here—and cornbread, if you like.

If, as Seneca said thousands of years ago, "Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity," we must always be at the ready. Your lucky day could be right around the corner, or it could be right here, right now. Fingers crossed.
 

Hoppin' John I

lightly adapted from Sean Brock
serves 6
  • — 1 pound smoked ham hock
  • — 2 ounces bacon (about 3 slices)
  • — 1 large sweet onion, chopped
  • — 3 cloves garlic, smashed
  • — 2 medium carrots, chopped
  • — 2 celery ribs, chopped
  • — 2 tomatoes, chopped (canned is fine)
  • — 1 large sweet apple, chopped
  • — 1 bay leaf
  • — 1/2 teaspoon thyme
  • — 7 black peppercorns
  • — 1 cup Anson Mills Sea Island red peas, soaked in a pot of water in the refrigerator over night 
(or substitute black-eyed peas)
  • — 1 1/2 cups medium dice onions
  • — 1 cup medium dice carrots
  • — 1 1/2 cups medium dice celery
  • — 2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
  • — 1 bay leaf
  • — 1/2 teaspoon thyme
  • — 1 jalapeño, sliced
  • — 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
  • — 1 tablespoon cider vinegar, or to taste
  • — 1 teaspoon coarse sea salt
  • — 1/4 teaspoon ground cayenne
  • — 1 cup Anson Mills Carolina Gold Rice
(or substitute best quality long-grain white rice)
  • — 4 tablespoons unsalted butter, cubed
  • Sliced chives or scallions, for garnish
  • Hot sauce (Crystal or Tabasco)

Place first 11 ingredients (through peppercorns) in a stockpot with 10 cups cold water and bring to a simmer. Continue to simmer gently for 4 hours. Cool, then strain out and discard solids.

Drain the peas and add to the stock, along with all of the remaining ingredients through the jalapeño. Cook the peas, partially covered, over low heat until they are soft, about 60-90 minutes. Season to taste with coarse sea salt. (The peas can be cooked ahead and refrigerated in their liquid for up to 3 days. Reheat, covered, over low heat before proceeding.) 
Drain the peas, reserving their cooking liquid. Keep warm, covered, over very low heat, while you make the gravy and rice.

To make the gravy, measure out 1 cup peas and 2 cups cooking liquid and combine in a blender with the butter. Blend on high until smooth, about 3 minutes. Add cider vinegar. Season with salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste. (Gravy can be made up to 3 days ahead and kept in a covered container in the refrigerator. Reheat, covered, over the lowest possible heat, stirring occasionally to prevent scorching.)

Preheat the oven to 300ºF. Bring 4 cups water, 1 teaspoon salt and the cayenne pepper to a boil in a large saucepan over medium-high heat. Reduce the heat to medium, add the rice, stir once, and bring to a simmer. Simmer gently, uncovered, stirring occasionally, until the rice is al dente, about 15 minutes. Drain the rice in a sieve and rinse under cold water.

Spread the rice out on a rimmed baking sheet. Dry the rice in the oven, stirring occasionally, for 10 minutes. Scatter the butter evenly over the rice and continue to dry, stirring every few minutes, for about 5 minutes longer. All excess moisture should have evaporated and the grains should be dry and separate.

To complete, use a slotted spoon to transfer the peas to a large serving bowl (should not be soupy). Add the rice and gently toss the rice and peas together. Drizzle gravy over the top, sprinkle with chives or scallions, and serve. Pass additional gravy and hot sauce on the side.

Download recipe  Download Recipe

Hoppin' John II

serves 6
  • — 8 ounces black-eyed peas, soaked overnight in cold water
  • — 1 smoked ham hock
  • — 1/2 cup small dice Spanish onion
  • — 1/2 cup small dice carrot
  • — 1/2 cup small dice celery
  • — 1 jalapeño, stemmed and sliced
  • — 1/2 teaspoon thyme
  • — 1 bay leaf
  • — 1/4 teaspoon ground cayenne
  • — 1 cup Carolina Gold rice (or other long-grain white rice)
  • — 4 tablespoons unsalted butter, cubed
  • Sliced chives or scallions, for garnish
  • Hot sauce (Crystal or Tabasco)

Drain black-eyed peas and combine them with ham hock, onion, carrot, celery, jalapeño, thyme and bay leaf in a large pot. Cover the mixture with cold water and bring to a simmer. Cook, partially covered, for about one hour, stirring occasionally. When peas are tender, remove hock and bay leaf. Season with salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste, then keep warm on the very lowest flame while you make the rice.

Preheat oven to 300ºF. In a large saucepan, bring 4 cups water, 1 teaspoon coarse sea salt and cayenne to a boil over medium-high heat. Reduce the heat to medium, add the rice, stir once, and bring to a simmer. Simmer gently, uncovered, stirring occasionally, until the rice is al dente, about 15 minutes. Drain the rice in a sieve and rinse under cold water.

Spread the rice out on a rimmed baking sheet. Dry the rice in the oven, stirring occasionally, for 10 minutes. Scatter the butter evenly over the rice and continue to dry, stirring every few minutes, for about 5 minutes longer. All excess moisture should have evaporated and the grains should be dry and separate.

To serve, put the rice in the bottom of a bowl. Using a slotted spoon, ladle peas over the rice (should not be soupy), then drizzle a little of the cooking liquid on top. Garnish with chives or scallions. Pass hot sauce.

Download recipe  Download Recipe
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13 Comments

I love you.
george on December 29, 2014 at 12:30 pm — Reply
Then I truly am lucky!
laura on December 30, 2014 at 8:50 am — Reply
Happy new year! I am also planning on trying Sean Brock's recipe. I am always sheepish about my hoppin' johns as a longtime vegetarian (almost as long as I have been southern), but I am hoping that gravy--and Brock's vegetable stock recipe--will make the difference.
val on December 29, 2014 at 4:46 pm — Reply
The gravy makes it!
laura on December 30, 2014 at 8:51 am — Reply
The gravy DID make it. I would try an adapted version as you did next time, because drying the rice felt unnecessary--but I loved the added vegetables in Brock's recipe.
val on January 6, 2015 at 2:11 pm — Reply
Glad you enjoyed it! Anson Mills also advocates that same technique for the rice. I guess they're all really obsessed with super-separated grains!
laura on January 6, 2015 at 4:33 pm — Reply
Perfect post! :) :) :)
Pritha on December 29, 2014 at 5:06 pm — Reply
Let me know how yours turns out...
laura on December 30, 2014 at 8:51 am — Reply
Wonderful post! Any food involving rice and beans reminds me of my Grandmother's Black Beans and Rice "moros and cristianos". Definitely trying the recipe. Thank you
Celina on December 30, 2014 at 12:40 am — Reply
Yep, definitely a close cousin to moros y cristianos. Hope you enjoy!
laura on December 30, 2014 at 8:50 am — Reply
so funny--I never would have pegged you for superstitious but now that I think about it, your posts always seem to hold back just the tiniest bit when you are sharing the good parts of your life, almost like you're trying not to tempt fate....and we say rabbit too on the first of each month (not three times so hoping we haven't messed up!). thx for the inspiration--I usually make this salad in the summer, but may make a batch for the new year. can't hurt! happy new year from one overly superstitious person to another!
nikki on December 30, 2014 at 9:53 am — Reply
Happy New Year, Nikki! May it bring you only good things. xo
laura on December 30, 2014 at 10:49 am — Reply
Best. Hoppin John. Everrrrr. Bean gravy is my new jam. Thank you, Glutton!
Janet on January 2, 2015 at 12:14 am — Reply