Tuesday, January 1, 2008

new year's superstitions - black-eyed peas

It's a southern superstition that if you don't eat peas on New Year's day you'll have bad luck for the entire year. Trust m.o.i, it's not worth the risk to do without, so the first day of the year is never complete without black-eyed peas.

There are many variants on black-eyed peas, everyone has their own recipe, and I like to sorta make mine up as I go, but there are a few essential ingredients that must go in the pot every year. Most all of these ingredients have to do with superstitions about the coming year. Although, entirely at odds with life's evidence, as I get older I tend toward more superstition, which is just another word for tradition. Some of these superstitions make about as much sense as the Iowa caucuses, but that doesn't prevent folks from making a big deal about them.

Like a lot of southern cooking, black-eyed peas starts with the holy trinity of the Deep South - onions, peppers, and celery. Traditionally, these would have sauteed in bacon grease, but olive oil makes more sense so use that instead. You'll still need some salted, smoked meat in the pot, unless you're a vegetarian and you can make some kick ass vegetarian peas. I typically throw a variety of samll pieces of leftover meats that I've squirelled away from the recent holidays into the pot, one of which must be ham. A little fat, so your year won't be so lean. Smoked turkey is great as well. Do not throw the meat in at the beginning of the cooking process though; first render the fat from any bacon, ham, or pork that may end up in the pot by sauteing and then draining the fat from it. You're really after the flavor here, not so much the fat. Years that are a little lean are usually those worth remembering the most. After rendering the meat, set it aside only to add during the last 30 minutes of cooking.

Use a large, heavy pot. I use a cast iron dutch oven for mine which my mom gave to me. Begin by sauteing the onions, peppers, and celery. Again in olive oil. This year I used a mixture of poblanos and anaheim peppers, because you want plenty of spice in your life. Dice everything coarsely, and use the leafy part of the celery as well. You want some green stuff in your life as well. Then add several cloves of minced garlic. Several to me means 5 or 6 of the German stiff-necked variety. This is more pungent that the typical store bought variety and you can usually get this at Whole Foods, or better yet, from your garden. Saute everything until they wilt. Do not overcook.

Next add your black-eyed peas to the pot. Use fresh peas if you can find them, otherwise use the dry ones. If using dry beans, then soak them for at least an hour (or overnight) before adding them to the pot. Pick through the beans to discard any bad ones or grit that someones come with the dry peas.

Add cold water and several cups of the stock of your choice. I like to use vegetable stock even when I make peas with meat. This adds to add to the variety of flavors, and we want as much variety in the coming year as we can stand. Add a bay leaf (more green leaf!). Bring to a boil, and then cover and simmer slowly. Like most of southern cooking the idea that you have to cook it all day isn't true. You want to cook it slowly so that all those lovely flavors meld togther into one harmious essence but you only have to cook till it's done.

Fresh peas cook within an hour, dry peas take about 2. Give yourself about 3-4 hours to make this dish as you'll likely be trying to catch glimpses of parades and football and administering to those who were foolish enough to drink to excess last night while your pot comes together. You can't sleep in if you're in charge of the peas or everyone will have a bad year -juju you don't want on your head - so be responsible the night before or you'll forget an essential ingredient. Whatever you do, don't hurry the pot. Relax, you go a whole year ahead of you.

Other spices to add. I like the year to be a little sweet so I add some tarragon and my secret ingredient, a whole vanilla bean split in half. A little cumin, some oregano, some marjoram, works well. Let everything cook for an hour or two and then taste and adjust the spices accordingly. Then let it cook for another half hour before adding any meat to the mixture and let those flavors meld for 20 minutes before any final adjustments to the spices are made. Remove the vanilla bean and bay leaf, then add 2 cups of frozen okra to the top of the pot. Let that cook for 10 minutes and you're ready to serve. Down home we call this doubling down as the okra thickens the peas and gives you more green!

Serve with piping hot cornbread, friends, and family. Good luck!

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