Although the new year is not quite here yet, I’ve already begun to celebrate it’s arrival. Since the Mayan’s were wrong about the end of the world last week, I now feel the need to hurry up and enjoy myself before we all slide off the Fiscal Cliff. So, I kicked off a week long party by reinventing a southern new year’s tradition: Hoppin’ John.
Southern tradition dictates eating peas on New Year’s Day. Different parts of the south do this differently. Some parts say you need to eat black-eyed peas, others say it needs to be peas and rice, other parts say peas and greens. In low country cooking, it needs to be Hoppin’ John served on rice. Hoppin’ John is a pea dish made most often with black-eyed peas and ham hock. Whatever the combination, the eating of peas on New Year’s Day is supposed to bring you luck and wealth in the coming year.
I’m not really picky; all of the above sound good to me. Well, almost all of them. I’m not a greens fan. I know, I know. How dare I claim to know anything about southern cooking and hate greens. It’s like an New Yorker hating pizza. But there you have it. I think my distaste is rooted in the smell of mustard greens cooking all day in my house when I was a child. On days when my grand-mother was down in the kitchen cooking up a mess of greens, I would hide out in my room, sometimes even burying my head in my pillow to hide from the stench. It takes a lot to get that smell out of your mind.
But now I’m the grown-up. I’m supposed to like vegetables. So, as the good girl that I am I decided to turn greens and peas into something I could like, even love. Mixing a mild in-season green like kale with the rice and peas makes the flavor become something to get excited about. Forming the rice, peas and greens into a patty, dredging it in corn meal and frying it makes this traditional dish into something strangely more southern. It tastes deeply of the south. The total flavor is nothing but satisfying: crunchy cornmeal, homey peas and rice and the rich flavor of greens. Several people even commented that it reminded them of fried okra. It can be a little crumbly to work with, but it’s worth it in the end because of the crunch and the flavor. Alone or with a generous splash of hot sauce, these are perfect for a home cooked meal with nothing but a salad or a piece of fish. Or if you are entertaining for New Year, you can start the party in style and make these into small appetizers. I can’t promise that they will bring you wealth or luck in the new year, but they will make you popular. Enjoy!
Hoppin John Cakes
Makes 16-3” cakes or 32 small hors d’oeuvres size cakes
I love these cakes fried up with just a splash of hot sauce. Depending on your rice and peas, you may need to stir in a tablespoon of flour to make these stick together when forming them into cakes. The baking soda used in the cooking of the kale helps keep it’s nice bright green color.
1 cup dried black-eyed peas
1/2 small onion, chopped fine
1 cups medium grain rice
1/2 small bunch of kale (take the other half bunch and make kale chips – everyone else is)
1 teaspoon steak seasoning or rib seasoning with natural smoke (two of my favorites are Adams Rib Rubb and Penzey’s Chicago Steak Seasoning)
2 teaspoons hot sauce such as Crystal
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 cup corn meal
bacon drippings or vegetable oil for frying
Pick over the dried peas to make sure there are no rocks, pebbles or debris. Soak them overnight or bring the peas to a boil and let boil for five minutes.
Turn off the heat and let them sit for 1 hour. Cook the peas without any seasoning until just tender, about 30 minutes. When they are tender, drain off the cooking liquid and season with 1/2 teaspoon of salt and two teaspoons of hot sauce.
Set aside to cool.
While the peas are cooking, add the onion and 1/2 teaspoon of salt to a medium pot without any oil. Saute on medium-low heat until the onion is translucent, 7-10 minutes.
Add two cups of water and steak or rib seasoning and bring to a boil. Add the rice, cover tightly and reduce the heat to low. Cook for twenty minutes or until the liquid is absorbed and the rice is tender.
To cook the greens, remove the stem from the leaves and chop the kale into 1 inch pieces and rinse well.
Add to a pot with a 1/2 cup of water, a 1/2 teaspoon of baking soda and a 1/2 teaspoon of salt. Cook over medium heat stirring frequently until the kale is wilted.
Cover and continue to cook until the kale is tender, about another five minutes. When tender, drain off the cooking liquid and squeeze the extra liquid out of the greens.
Combine the greens, rice and peas together and season to taste.
Form the cakes by pressing the mixture into a round cookie or biscuit cutter or down into a ring mold.
Small cakes can be formed by pressing the mixture into the desired size with your hands.
You want the mixture to be tightly packed to prevent the cakes from crumbling. If they do start to crumble, you can add a tablespoon or two of flour to the mixture. Carefully dredge the cakes in corn meal.
Heat a thin layer of oil (about 1/8” deep) in a large pan over medium heat. When the oil is hot, add the cakes in batches cooking for about five minutes a side.
They should be very crispy and dark golden brown on both sides. Repeat with remaining cakes adding more oil as needed until all the cakes are done. Serve hot with lots of extra hot sauce.