New Year’s kicked off at my house, as it always does, with hoppin’ john. My concoction bears absolutely no relationship to the traditional version-but my friends and family have never been known to be sticklers for tradition if it would impair their enjoyment of a free meal.
I always think about the significance food occupies in my life – especially resonant after the holidays.
For example, no Christmas Eve in my life would be complete without Chinese food. It began as a tradition, post-college, when a group of friends and I (for varying reasons) decided we would boycott the holidays. At the time, Hunan was the one local restaurant where you could go and forget it was Christmas (they’ve since bowed to a few sparse decorations, but it’s still largely holiday-free).
This year, a group of incredibly disparate drop-ins and drop-outs gathered for the liveliest event in years (a schoolteacher, another writer, two girls from a strip club, and so on…. if our priest pal hadn’t been unavoidably detained with parishioners – it would’ve had the makings of a very good joke).
We feasted over hot and sour soup, spare ribs, kung pao this, four-treasure that, and so on.
Some of my favorite Christmas gifts this year were also food-related (homemade infused oils and vinegar s and herbs from one coworker; homemade tamarind sauce from another; and more high tech cooking equipment from various loved ones…) The way to my heart is, definitively, through my stomach.
For New Year’s Eve, I hosted another low-key, drop-in, drop-out affair – mostly consisting of movie snack food- in keeping with the evening’s theme (which was that I’d just gotten digital cable and suddenly had 500 channels to share). So we settled in for The Outer Limits marathon on Showtime, and once everyone got warm and comfortable and sleepy, I became the impromptu hostess of a slumber party, followed by the ubiquitous Hoppin’ John breakfast.
As everyone obsesses about all the holiday weight we’ve gained, it’s worthwhile to take a moment and remember what a luxury it is to live in a country (at least until the impending inauguration) where Plenty and Abundance are the rule, rather than the exception. Though it has its drawbacks.
According to this morning’s news, we even have the fattest pets of any developed nation. One third of our cats and dogs are overweight, according to a Veterinary Association. The reason? Too many treats, not enough exercise. Sound familiar?
Still, there has to be a happy medium, and it would be sad to see food relegated to the ghetto of just another vice.
I know there’s no greater joy for me than preparing a meal for people I love. And there’s no greater insult to me – as a cook – than for someone to turn up their nose at my table and mention the word “diet” (unless maybe it would be a request for ketchup).
Run a few laps around the park while we drink our after-dinner coffee if you must, but please, Mangiate!! Mangiate!!
Since this is our annual health and fitness issue, I’m sharing my bastardized recipe for Hoppin’ John below. First, because it’s lucky, and we all need that. Second, if you are trying to lose weight, it’s pretty healthy (if you leave off the sour cream and cheese).
Non-Traditional (but still lucky) Hoppin’ John
You will need
An assortment of your favorite dried legumes, I use:
brown crowder peas (good luck finding them; I get them from my dad)
2 cups raw Texmati rice (if you’re feeding a horde)
Pluto’s Caribbean Bliss (you can order it from Southern Seasons)
Any kind of coconut liquor (liqueur, um, whatever)
large yellow onion
several cloves garlic (preferably Blue Moon)
assorted dried hot peppers
You will not need
hamhocks (because that’s just disgusting)
homemade salsa (too complex to go into here)
shredded jack cheese
First, you have to “look” the beans and peas the night before, as my grandmother would say. Put them on a cookie sheet and sort out all the dust, rocks, pebbles, and any other extras that don’t seem to belong. Then dump the beans into a giant mixing bowl; fill to the top with water; soak overnight.
Get up at about 5 or 6 a.m. (for this phase of the recipe, I’ve found that it’s helpful to have two large dogs who will lick your face until you get out of bed). Then put on the beans. Bring them to a hard boil (uncovered) for about five minutes. Squeeze one whole lime into the pot (then throw the lime in). Toss in a few bay leaves. Sprinkle with Caribbean Bliss. Add in about a quarter cup of coconut liquor. Then take the pot down to a low simmer (covered) for several hours.
Prepare the Texmati rice (according to the package directions). Then sweat the onion and garlic (“sweat” means until translucent; don’t brown) and hot peppers with bay leaves in a large skillet with some olive oil. Toss about half the contents of this skillet into the beanpot. When the rice is cooked, throw it into the skillet with the leftovers and stir thoroughly.
Some Hoppin’ John enthusiasts advocate cooking the beans and rice all together. You can do that, but it’s ugly.
Better to serve the rice in one big bowl, and the beans in a nice big tureen with a ladle (remove the limes and bay leaves, and garnish with fresh lime slices). Let everyone help themselves from there, and pick the toppings they like.