Article and photo by Lisa Crockett
New Year’s Day has always been kind of a non-starter for me as a holiday. It comes at the end of a long string of days I love – Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas (both ‘Eve’ and ‘Day’.) I even love holidays I don’t celebrate like Hanukkah, with its focus on light in the darkness, and Kwanza, which emphasizes appreciation for the gifts of nature.
New Year’s though, always seemed like kind of a drag to me. My New Year’s celebrations never look like the glamorous parties you see in the movies, and I’m usually tired and a little burned out. Holiday decorations come down, bills start to land in the mailbox, and the weather often turns bitter cold. Sending the kids back to school goes from being a dim possibility to a concrete certainty. Vacations and visitors come to a screeching halt. In short, all the things I’ve sort of managed to ignore during the season – like the fact that holiday meals tend to be high in calories and that purchases charged to the credit card in December will, in fact, need to be paid for in January – come crashing in all around me.
A few years ago, after suffering my yearly bout of New Year’s blues, I decided I needed a new way to look at the day. Sure the tinsel and sugar and jubilation are gone, but there is something cleansing about the start of a new year. Quiet and calm replace noise and chaos. Clean white snow means a blank slate, a new start. Cold temperatures mean plenty of time indoors to reflect and organize and recharge.
Simple, healthy food is so appealing at this time of year, too. But with a limited selection of fresh produce, and (if you’re like me) a measure of burnout from hours in the kitchen fixing holiday favorites, meals need to be made from ingredients in the pantry that can be fixed in a flash.
A few years back, I stumbled upon a traditional southern dish that hits all the right notes – delicious, easy to fix, and inexpensive. Hoppin’ John, a southern preparation of beans and rice, features black-eyed peas and is said to bring those who consume it good luck in the new year.
The name of the dish may be a transliteration of the Haitian Creole term for black-eyed peas, pois pigeons. Other people think it may tie into an old slang term inviting people to eat: “Hop in, John!” In keeping with southern tradition, Hoppin’ John should be served with greens, which are said to represent money, and therefore prosperity, in the new year. Cornbread, which is thought to represent gold, is a classic and tasty accompaniment.
The recipe below is pretty close to the classic preparations I have tried, with my addition of sweet peppers, which add color, crunch and nutrients. I also used canned beans instead of dry ones to speed preparation. I think it’s pretty tasty with a dollop of sour cream and a spoonful of salsa, too, though that’s a pretty western take on the dish. No matter what you add, remember to savor its hearty, warm and comforting flavor, and look forward to good things to come. Happy New Year!
8-10 slices of bacon
1 medium yellow onion, chopped
1 red or yellow sweet bell pepper,
chopped (or half of each)
2 cloves garlic
2 15-ounce cans black-eyed peas,
drained and rinsed
1 15-ounce can chicken broth
2 teaspoons dried thyme
1 bay leaf
10 ounces baby spinach, chopped
½ teaspoon Tabasco sauce (or to taste)
Salt and pepper
2 cups hot, cooked white rice
Cook bacon until crispy, then remove the bacon from the pan and drain on paper towels, reserving a few tablespoons of the bacon fat in the pan. Saute the onion and bell pepper in the fat until they are tender. Add the garlic and cook for just a few seconds before adding the black-eyed peas, chicken broth, thyme and bay leaf (remove bay leaf before serving). Simmer for 15 to 20 minutes. Remove from heat, adding spinach and stirring until wilted and well incorporated. Season with Tabasco, salt and pepper and serve over hot rice. Serves four.