I was born and raised in the North, but I spent a good portion of my cooking career down South, in New Orleans and Atlanta. While I prefer the North, especially for the 4 distinct seasons it offers, I came away from my time south of the Mason-Dixon Line with a great appreciation of southern culture and of southern foods. Just like in all regions of the US, southern food is a wonderful mix of native foodstuffs, foods brought to this country by colonists, Native American dishes, and a whole lot of ingenuity. What makes a lot of southern cooking so different, and wonderful is the heavy influence of African accented foods, both directly, in the form of foods eaten by slaves in the early years of our country and indirectly through the filter of the Caribbean. While these influences permeate a considerable bit of southern food it can really be seen the cuisines of New Orleans and in the coastal cuisines of the Carolinas and Georgia.
One of my favorite dishes, found throughout the south, but especially along the coastal areas, is Hoppin’ John, a variation on rice and beans, a dish found throughout the South and Caribbean. In this version, rice is paired with black eyed peas (also known as cowpeas) and bacon or ham. While eaten year round, it is often served on New Year’s Day and is considered a lucky food. As the peas are symbolic of coins, eating the dish is supposed to ensure a posperous year ahead.
Hoppin’ John, like so many great regional dishes, can be a very controversial dish with each family claiming that theirs is the proper way to make it. Some recipes cook the rice and the beans separately and then only combine them at service time, some recipes don’t include tomato, some say that ham is traditional, while others might claim that only bacon or fatback is traditional. I won’t make such claims. I openly admit that my version takes from a number of recipes, incorporating what I like and discarding what I didn’t. Is it “traditional?” Maybe yes and maybe no. It all depends on who you ask. Either way, it is quite tasty.
My wife had never had the dish before so I decided that New Year’s Day would be the perfect time to introduce her to this simple, yet satisfying meal. Served with greens, which are also thought to bring money, if eaten on New Year’s Day, and cornbread, you have a hearty soul satisfying meal.
2 slices bacon, thick cut, diced
1 medium onion, peeled and diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 each bell pepper, diced
4 cups water
1 pound black eyed peas, frozen (if you can’t get frozen the buy dried-soak 1/2 pound overnight then cook until tender but not mushy, about 2 2 1/2 hours, then proceed with the recipe)
2 1/2 – 3 cups Ham, diced
1 each bay leaf
1 can (15oz) diced tomato
1 cup rice
1/2 tsp. black pepper, ground
3/4 tsp. dried thyme
1/4 – 1/2 tsp. cayenne (depending on your tastes)
1/4 tsp. oregano
In a pot combine the bacon and onion. Cook over medium heat until the onion is translucent. Add the garlic and cook 2 minutes longer. Add the ham, bay leaf, black eyed peas and 3 cups of the water. Bring to a boil, cover, and simmer for 20 minutes. Add the rice, tomatoes, remaining cup of water and spices. Season lightly with salt, remember the ham and bacon will bring a considerable amount of salt to the dish. Cook, covered, until the rice is tender, about 15-20 minutes longer. Check the seasoning and add more salt if necessary.