Kitchen Witch - Get lucky this New Year's Day

Even this gal, born and raised north of the Mason-Dixon Line, knows that Hoppin' John rules when it comes to New Year's Day traditions. You can't start a year off right without it.

Thing is, you kind of hope you'll get invited somewhere for a bowl of black-eyed peas and rice, lovingly prepared by somebody who knows how to cook it right, seasoned with plenty of salt, spice and pork product. After all, a bland bowl of peas and rice — well, it ain't nice.

I remember screwing up my first batch of Hoppin' John. It was New Year's Day 1997, and I was by myself, in Brooklyn, on break from cooking school. I had no idea what I was doing. My cornbread turned out good. But the peas? Let's just say they tasted better washed down with Johnny Walker Red. Although deep in formal culinary study, I couldn't cook a pot of dried beans to save my life. It would be a lesson I'd learn along the way.

The lesson couldn't wait for too long, though. If I couldn't make a proper pot of Hoppin' John to ring in the new year, how would I ever have good luck? Black-eyed peas, thought to have arrived in this country as a result of the African slave trade, don't resemble coins nearly as much as lentils do. But they still carry the symbolic weight of bringing good fortune to those who eat them on New Year's Day.

The fun thing about bean cookery, I now understand, is that you can play around, improvising and making shortcuts as you go. In fact, I love making Hoppin' John with frozen black-eyes, which work just as well (or dare I say, even better) than their dried counterparts. With frozen peas, you can have Hoppin' John in one hour, which makes it a manageable weeknight dish. In spite of its traditional roots, pork is not critical to the success of a rockin' Hoppin' John. Vegetarians can use soy sauce and liquid smoke, plus ante up the aromatics, including chopped garlic, celery, carrot and a habanero or chipotle chile. The garnish department is another way to get creative; I love chopped fresh parsley, chopped tomato, diced scallion, lemon wedges and even a little shredded cheddar.

Traditional Hoppin' John

For four servings, estimate the following:

5 strips bacon

1 medium onion, chopped

1/2 habanero or chipotle chile, diced

2 10-ounce packages of frozen black-eyed peas

Enough water to barely cover the peas

10 ounces chicken stock

1 cup long-grain rice

Garnishes (see above)

Fry bacon in a deep skillet or pot and cook until crisp. Remove from pan and drain; set aside. Add a smidge of oil, followed by the onion and chile pepper, stirring with a wooden spoon. You may need an ounce or two of water, to help scrape up the bacon bits stuck to the bottom of the pan.

Cook aromatics until softened a bit, about 1 minute. Add peas and let thaw in pan. Add approximately 1 cup water, but go gradually. You may need more as the peas thaw. Bring up to a boil and let simmer for at least 20 minutes. Peas should be tender.

Add chicken stock (alternatives: water, vegetable stock) and rice. Stir with spoon and let cook, until rice expands and is tender, about 20 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Serve with garnishes of choice. Cornbread and collard greens are wonderful accompaniments, as is a cold beer.

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