02 January 2011
Take a good, long look at that there bowl o' goodness. It's not just a bowl of beans and greens, it is a Grand Slam of New Years' Day feasting wonderfulness. I'm happy to say I made it myself, and it was excellent.
There are a lot of ritual foods to celebrate New Years Day, not the least of which is Hoppin' John, that traditional Southern rice and beans dish which is supposed to bring a prosperous New Year if eaten on the first day. While I have never had a true version of Hoppin' John, the idea of it has never been far from my mind, especially this year. I told myself I would make it, or a version of it, because I liked the idea of a ritual. Plus I was hungry.
Problem is, I had no black-eyed peas or field peas (for the true Low Country experience), and while at the grocery store, discovered they were all out. I didn't want to try it with canned peas (not yet, anyway), so I reckoned I could rig up a substitute of sorts with the bag of pinto beans I had in the pantry. This was diversion #1.
Diversion #2, I wanted some greens in my beans, something I believe is more of a side to accompany the Hoppin' John. But I had the idea of gumbo z'herbes rattling around in the back of my head, so the greens were going in the pot. Problem: The grocery store was also out of most of the greens that would have been appropriate for the dish. The best I could come up with was a big bunch of red Swiss chard. I reckoned I could combine the chard with a small head of romaine lettuce I had in the refrigerator.
Finally, I found the last pack of smoked ham hocks in the meats section. Seriously, they had one left*. So I took that, figured I was done and went home, treasures in hand.
On New Years Day, the weather was looking a little gray, so it seemed perfect beans weather. After soaking the pintos in water for a few hours, I simmered the hocks for ten minutes in my dutch oven, in about 6 cups of water. I put in the beans, half a large onion, and two small bay leaves. I let them simmer for about 1-1/2 hours, at which the beans were just about the right kind of tender. I cut the chard and the romaine into bite-sized pieces, put them in the pot along with a liberal sprinkling of cayenne pepper, and let them cook down for another 10-15 minutes.
Let me tell you, this pot of beans taught me a lesson. I've cooked beans before, written about that experience even, but I realize now what I thought were good beans were really just okay beans. Ladies and gentlemen, I must have done something truly right, because this pot of beans and greens was out-of-the-park good. I've often read that beans cooked just right have a nice firmness until the exact moment you bite down, then they sort of collapse into melty goodness. I know now what that means. I hit it. The beans, they are beautiful in the mouth.
I suppose if I hadn't forgotten to make some cornbread, the meal would have been truly complete. But as it was, it was still so good "ya hurt yaself". Something about it was exactly what I wanted, and a great, great way to start off the New Year. The beans were perfect, and the greens were a tonic for my thin winter blood.
Pretty high bar there, 2011: you've got some work to do! Now, about that cornbread...
*I did my shopping on the afternoon of December 31st. Apparently a lot of other folks had the same idea about a good luck dish for New Years Day, because the shelves were bare in a few key areas. Next year, I'll lay in some supplies on the 30th!