The tasty tradition of a New Year’s Day meal
I grew up with very few traditions. So, as an adult, much of my energy around the holidays has been spent trying to invent comforting experiences to share with friends and loved ones—things the missus and I can depend on and look forward to each year.
And probably the most dependable rite we’ve come up with is the good-luck New Year’s Day meal that we share with our next-door neighbors.
Most traditions around such meals are based on notions of good health and prosperity (mostly the latter) in the coming year. And the Southern poor-food classic Hoppin’ Johns is the dish that seems to tick the most symbolic “good-luck” boxes: beans (coins), pork (prosperity and progress), greens (money), rice (abundance), corn/cornbread (gold), plus a dime tossed in the pot to be discovered for an extra serving of good luck.
I’ve tried many variations, combining approaches and refining my technique each year until New Year’s Day 2016, when I finally succeeded in creating a fully realized, and hopefully enduring, tradition.
Jason’s Hoppin’ Johns
4 slices bacon, chopped
2 ham hocks
1 cup onion, chopped
1/2 cup celery, chopped
1/2 cup red, yellow or orange bell pepper, chopped
1 tablespoon chopped garlic
1 pound black-eyed peas, soaked overnight and rinsed
1 quart chicken stock (not broth)
Black pepper, to taste
Cayenne (optional), to taste
12 oz. ham, chopped
1 dime (thoroughly cleaned)
Salt, to taste
For the rice:
2 cups (uncooked) white rice (pearl, jasmine, basmati)
2 Tbsp olive oil
For the greens:
5 large bunches of fresh spinach (or one bunch per 2 servings)
2 Tbsp olive oil or 2 Tbsp butter (optional)
Salt, to taste
Green onions (or chives), finely chopped
Tapatio, or other hot sauce
Directions: The night before, soak the black-eyed peas in at least double their amount in water (8-12 hours).
After soaking, drain the beans and set aside. Cook bacon in a large pot, then remove with slotted spoon and set aside. Add the onion, celery, bell pepper and garlic to the bacon drippings; cook until onions are clear. Add the black-eyed peas, stock, ham hocks bay leaf, black pepper, and if desired, cayenne (but not the salt—it’ll make beans mushy/chalky if added beforehand). Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer for 40 minutes. Add ham, cooked bacon and dime, simmer for another 5 minutes, or until the peas are creamy and tender, stir occasionally. When beans are done, remove bay leaf and add salt to taste.
While beans are cooking, make rice. Put rice in bowl or large measuring cup, cover with warm water and soak for 10 minutes. Drain rice in sieve while rinsing it until water runs clear. Continue to drain in sieve for about five minutes. Heat up 2 Tbsp olive oil in a pot on medium-high, add drained rice and toast till dry (once you see any browning, it’s for sure done toasting). Add 3 cups water to rice, add salt, bring to boil and reduce to low-medium heat. Set timer for 20 minutes. Simmer until water just disappears below surface of rice, then reduce heat to very low and cover. Stir once, to avoid sticking in center. When timer goes off, turn off heat.
Cut off spinach stems, rinse leaves thoroughly and drain or spin till dry. Cook greens as desired: wilt in hot pan with olive oil or butter, or steam with water. Salt to taste.
Serve beans over white rice and greens, garnish with green onions, add hot sauce if desired, and don’t eat the dime. Cornbread is the traditional side, but cheesy cornbread muffins with green onions, corn and cheddar added to the batter are even better. Happy New Year!