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Hoppin’ John

December 29, 2011

This traditional New Year’s treat is something I enjoy making all year long. Like so many other rice and bean dishes (Gallo Pinto, for example), Hoppin’ John is super-satisfying without being heavy.

There are a lot of theories about the name. My personal favorite is that eager eaters will come “hopping” when you cook it. The less charming but perhaps more plausible etymology is that it’s a bastardization of the creole word for black-eyed peas, “pois pigeons.

In the American South, it’s eaten on New Year’s Day to bring luck and prosperity, and it’s been around a good long time. The recipe in The Carolina Housewife from 1847 is as follows:

As you can see, there isn’t much to it. Given that it’s a winter delicacy, you probably couldn’t count on a lot of fresh vegetables at the time. Convinced that I was missing something, I checked the Lee Bros’ Southern Cookbook; they add some onion, tomatoes and red pepper flakes, but it’s similarly simple.

We’re spoiled with an abundance of fresh produce, so my version of Hoppin’ John has developed into a more colorful dish. I can’t pretend that it’s authentic, but it’s definitely delicious, and worth the extra chopping.

Up until now, I’ve mostly used bacon (thick-cut or slab) or diced prosciutto, simply because those items are in my fridge more frequently than, say, a smoked pig ankle. Now that I’ve used a ham hock, however, I don’t think I can go back. It adds a richness of flavor that is well worth a little extra trouble.

(For my dietarily-restricted friends and family, I’ve included some non-pig options below.)

Once the beans are cooked, you pour out the whole mixture, straining the beans from the liquid. The result is in incredible ham/bean broth, perfect for seasoning your rice (or drinking with a straw.) I also cut a fatty piece of of the ham hock and rendered it to toast my rice. Waste not, want not.

I served this alongside some traditional collard greens (the color of money to bring good fortune), some less traditional cornbread biscuits and some even less traditional beverages. Hopefully, it’ll still bring us some luck, even though we ate it early.

Hoppin’ John, California Style

Makes 6-8 servings

1 Tablespoon lard, butter or vegetable oil
1 medium onion, diced
1 green bell pepper, diced
1 red bell pepper, diced
1-2 Serrano peppers, minced
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 celery ribs, diced
1 large carrot, diced
1 smoked ham hock (1-2 lbs)*
8 oz black-eyed peas, picked over and soaked overnight
4 cups water
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1 teaspoon paprika
2 dried bay leaves
1.25 cups rice
1 teaspoon salt (for rice)
salt and pepper
sliced green onions, for garnish

1. In a large pot, saute vegetables in the lard/butter/oil for a few minutes until they begin to soften. (Onion, peppers, garlic, celery and carrot.)
2. Add ham hock, peas, water, thyme, paprika and bay leaves. Bring to a simmer and cook over low heat until peas are tender (about 50 minutes.)
3. Remove contents of pot and separate out the liquid. (You should have about 2.5 cups of broth.)
4. Melt a bit of pork fat from the ham hock in your pot. Add rice and saute for a minute until the rice is translucent. Add 1 teaspoon salt and return the broth to the pot.
5. Cover and cook on low heat until rice is done, about 15 minutes.
6. While rice is cooking, cut meat from the ham hock and chop into a small dice. Discard skin, fat and bones, or save them for chicharones.
7. Stir together cooked rice, pea mixture and ham pieces. Add salt and pepper to taste. (Mine needed plenty of pepper and very little salt.)
8. Serve with green onions on top alongside some collard greens and cornbread.

*Since I have already committed serious Southern Cooking blasphemy, here are some pig-free options:
If you keep kosher/halal, try using a smoked turkey leg instead.
For vegetarians/vegans, omit the meat and use 1 Tblsp smoked paprika in place of the regular paprika. Melt a knob of butter or margarine into the finished dish for added richness.

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