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Chef Foster: ‘Hopping John’ is a must for New Year’s Eve — not only delicious, but it renews hope

If you’re like most people around this time of year, food, in all forms is first and foremost in your mind. Either it’s a part of an event you’re planning, a get together with family, or a posh celebration on New Year’s Eve.

Many articles, (including some of mine) focus on what to serve, how to do it well, and what results we declare you’ll have. As I said in previous columns, that’s a lot of pressure to add to an already stressful season. On top of all this, is underlying thought that this year in particular carries its own special outside burdens. The last thing you really need is another goal to meet, another dish to fix, another high note to hit. Let me assure you that this is not my intention, but as a transplanted northerner, I must remind you all (or you ‘all) of your solemn responsibiity to put some Hopping John on the table a minute after the ball falls on Sunday night.

Ah yes, Hopping John, the iconic southern dish that portends good luck and fortune throughout the new year, A dish that borrows heavily from a distant past (sometime around the 1840’s) fraught with modern day ghosts. 

Generally considered to be a dish of the Carolinas, and coastal Georgia, it borrows from rice plantations and the Gullah culture of the shelter islands to create a dish that was consumed by rich and poor alike, and only on a day when each person had a chance at a new beginning. That’s not to say that field peas (soon to be replaced by black eyed peas) and the splendid rice of the coastal plantations was not an everyday staple for most, because it was.

Rice and beans, because of their unique pairing make a “perfect protein” fill the belly and were a staple dish in the diet of slaves and poor people alike. The notion that once a year the slave and the master would consume the same meal takes on a loaded meaning when you consider the redemptive quality associated with the dish.

Within its very make-up, Hopping John is a seamless dish that can be created in a variety of ways. Served as a stew, a rice and beans dish, with or without collard greens, vegetarian or full on sausage, bacon, fatback, even smoked turkey.

Historically, and socially, the dish probably reflected the freshest and most local of ingredients; the essential farm-to-table dish. It doesn’t require technological advances, professional skill levels or extensive time and energy. It is a crock pot favorite, adaptable to a wood stove or fire, and even quickly made in a pressure cooker.

In short, it is the stress-free dish that all of us long for in the middle of fixing that three hundredth crostini or watching the cousin consume $50 worth of cocktail shrimp in five minutes. It is recognizable even to an outside as historically important, and it carries with it the sense of renewal we all seek this time of year.

As a chef, the temptation here is to update the dish, deconstruct it, even sub the ingredients for others, but that would be futile for most as the simplicity and basic good bones of the dish, well made, should satisfy the most.

If you celebrate the new year with Hopping John you probably have a recipe that carries some traditional weight. Grandmother or even great grandmother’s recipe may hang over your head every December. Not to worry, it’s probably the one recipe that works every time, tasting identical each time you make it.

Sourcing ingredients should be a snap as all of the permutations require basic ingredient (no truffles here). Cooking techniques require the most basic of resources, a gift from the spartan origins of the original dish. At some point you just need to set aside some time to chop some onions, soak some field peas or black-eyed peas, cut some pork product and cook some rice.

The resulting dish ripe with history and the lore of good fortune will do the rest; the quintessential comfort food on the late evening or early morning when you may be in search and in need of the most comfort you can have.
Hopping John- the basic recipe

Rice –use good Carolina Gold rice, cooked soft and fluffy with nothing more than salt and pepper to finish. I prefer to use the 1-2-3 method, one cup of rice to 2 cups of water will yield three cups of cooked rice. As always though read the cooking directions on the package as the company spends a lot of money testing ways to cook their product. The rice should be cooked close to the time of eating as letting it sit warm or re-warming it isn’t nearly as satisfying.

Black-eyed peas – These should be soaked for 24 hours (don’t use canned unless you’re up against a time crunch). I also blanch the soaked beans by bring them up to a boil, straining them, rinsing again and then putting them back on to simmer. This helps to alleviate the earthiness that turns people away from field peas, lentils, split peas and black-eyed peas in particular. Once the peas have been simmering about an hour, test them for tenderness.

If they have some give, add one small onion chopped for every two cups of peas that you have. Add a bay leaf at this point, but no other seasoning.

After a half hour more add the meats; chopped bacon, fatback, sausage, smoked turkey of ham. Ideally you might have some leftovers from your holiday celebrations, now is the time to use them. You can be generous or judicious, your choice.

I like my black-eyed peas to have some softness, and to use their starch to create a “gravy” in the pot. At this point I season with salt and cracked black pepper.

Some will add hot sauce but I save that for the table. If your timing is right, the stew is done when the rice is cooked, covered and waiting.

I don’t like cooking them together because of color and the rice’s tendency to thicken the stew to a paste. If you really want a treat make the stew on the 30th of January and put it back on New Year’s Eve.

That’s when the rice will go on the stove, the crowd will gather with champagne, and at the stroke of midnight we’ll renew ourselves with a bowl of hope.

John Foster is an executive chef who heads the culinary program at Sullivan University’s Lexington campus. A New York native, Foster has been active in the Lexington culinary scene and a promoter of local and seasonal foods for more than 20 years. The French Culinary Institute-trained chef has been the executive chef of his former restaurant, Harvest, and now his Chevy Chase eatery, The Sage Rabbit.

To read more from Chef John Foster, including his recipes, click here.  

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