So I'm going to practice a New Year's tradition that I've been hit-and-miss about in the past: This year, I'm serving black-eyed peas on New Year's Day for good luck.
It's hard to say why and how black-eyed peas became the traditional good-luck food for Jan. 1. Some say the good people of Charleston, S.C., fed Hoppin' John -- a dish of stewed black-eyed peas and rice -- to starving people near the end of the Civil War. When the war ended and things got better, folks began to associate black-eyed peas with good luck.
I like the legend that says Yankee soldiers, rampaging through the South on Sherman's march, yanked and burned all the cash crops, but missed black-eyed peas because they looked like weeds. Because they were one of the only foods left behind and saved many a starving soul, they earned the honor of being the official good-luck food of New Year's Day.
Black-eyed pea folklore holds that a dime should be dropped in the pea pot at the end of cooking and ladled out with the peas. The person whose bowl receives the dime will reap financial fortune in the coming year. If you don't like the idea of a dime simmering in your pea pot, serve collard greens, symbolic of money, alongside your peas.
My mother's first question every year when I call her on New Year's Day is: "Did you eat black-eyed peas?" Some years I've lied and said yes so she wouldn't worry. Some years I've cracked open a can of black-eyed peas and eaten a forkful so I wouldn't have to lie. This year, I'm having a black-eyed pea feast, with collard greens on the side and cornbread to sop up the juices.
Emeril Lagasse has several recipes for black-eyed peas that turn the humble legume into a main course feast. I'm considering stewed black-eyed peas, a recipe that calls for a cut-up link of kielbasa or andouille sausage, sauted in olive oil with onion, garlic, salt, cayenne pepper, thyme, bay leaves and chopped parsley, then simmered in chicken stock with black-eyed peas that have been soaked overnight. (If you want to skip the soaking part, a wise idea at high altitude, just use a good brand of canned black-eyed peas, rinsed and drained, and less chicken stock.) Serve it with white rice and call it Hoppin' John.
Or I might just serve a cold black-eyed pea salad, made from a recipe by an Alabama woman I met this year, Betty Lou Shepherd. Betty calls it poor man's caviar, though I've seen it called Texas caviar, too. Mix two cups of rinsed and drained, canned black-eyed peas, with a finely diced red bell pepper and a green bell pepper, chopped green onions, a bunch of finely chopped cilantro and a couple of finely diced tomatoes. Then pour a bottle of spicy Italian dressing over the whole thing, cover and refrigerate overnight. To make it Southwestern, throw in a minced jalapeo or two, and some cumin or chili powder.
I used to cook collard greens all day with a big ham hock, but my daughter and some other enlightened cooks have introduced me to vegetarian varieties that are equally as good, if not better. Wash several pounds of greens several times in cold water to remove all the sand, cut out the big center rib, then roll the leaves and cut them crosswise in a chiffonade, or just chop roughly. Saut onions (preferably sweet yellow ones) and minced garlic in olive oil in a large pot, add equal parts cider vinegar and balsamic vinegar and about two to three times as much vegetable stock (which can be made with a vegetable bouillon cube).
Bring to a boil, add collards and simmer for a long time, until tender. Add a big pinch of cayenne pepper and a generous amount of sugar to taste, then simmer some more until the flavors are absorbed. To save time on both prep and cooking, use frozen chopped collard or turnip greens, microwaved and squeezed through a towel to remove all their juices. Just simmer them in a pan with sauted onion and garlic, smaller amounts of the vinegars, cayenne and sugar. There's no way to make it Southwestern.
Don't forget the cornbread. Happy New Year.