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Bert Greene's Kitchen

'Hoppin' John' a New Year's Must

December 27, 1987|Bert Greene | Greene is a New York-based food columnist

The first time I was aware of New Year's Eve celebrations, I was 7 years old. My parents had gone partying and my 12 year old sister Myra, woke me sharply at 11:45 p.m.

"Get dressed. Quickly." She commanded. "Come downstairs, get a pot and a spoon from the kitchen and . . . button up your overcoat."

"Why?" I asked sleepily.

"Because we're going to celebrate the New Year. It's 1930."

What I remember best of this escapade is Myra and me, joined by the Johnson children next door, walking around the dark suburban streets of Queens like a band of raggle-taggle midgets, banging our pots and striking pan covers together like cymbals, screaming:

"Happy New Year!" And succeeding in only waking the chickens our neighbor across the street raised for a hobby.

They crowed nice and loud!

Tastes Change

When I grew older, my taste in New Year's Eve festivities changed. For years I would go to the theater; eat a midnight supper at some expensive hostelry and allow myself to be crushed into a state of indigestion by the surging mobs in Times Square afterward. After a dozen of these masochistically enchanted evenings passed, I decided to pass on that ritual as well.

House parties to celebrate the dying of the old year and the birth of the new were my next attempt at solstice conviviality. Another bust.

I found I was unutterably dispirited by so much desperate merriment not to mention the sight of old friends making the same darn fools of themselves year after year with only some half-warm casserole served at midnight to take up the slack.

If this sounds to you like I am growing crotchety with each passing year, I deny it to the death. Merely more selective in my need for revelry.

If anything, New Year's Eve becomes a precious gift with each 12-month passage of time. How I choose to spend its commemoration, I find, becomes a more and more personal option.

Amicability and Champagne

My happiest way to inaugurate the beginning of another auspicious year is a very small dinner party. Never more than six at the table, and in the best of possible worlds, two.

There are only two ingredients necessary for this assemblage; true amicability among the dinner partners and enough good Champagne to cherish it.

A traditionalist host, whenever I prepare New Year's Eve dinner for friends, I try to include some version of beans and rice; what Southerners dub "Hoppin' John" as one of the adjuncts of the meal. Why? Because it's meant to bring good luck to the householder for the whole next year and I for one take that on hearsay alone.

Two of my more successful variations on this theme follow.

HOPPIN' JOHN SOUP

1 tablespoon unsalted butter

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 large onion, minced

1 large clove garlic, minced

1 pound dried black-eyed peas

1 ham bone or 1/2 pound chunk smoked ham

1/2 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme or 1/4 teaspoon dried

1 bay leaf

1 quart chicken broth, about

1 quart water

1/2 cup brown rice

Juice of 1 lemon

1 teaspoon grated lemon peel

Salt

Freshly ground pepper

1 teaspoon chopped chives

Heat butter with oil in large pot over medium-low heat. Add onion and cook 1 minute. Add garlic. Cook 5 minutes. Stir in black-eyed peas. Add ham bone, thyme, bay leaf, 1 quart chicken broth and water. Heat to boiling.

Reduce heat and simmer, partially covered, 1 hour. Stir in rice and continue to cook, partially covered, until black-eyed peas and rice are tender, about 30 minutes longer. If soup is too thick, add more broth.

If using ham chunk instead of ham bone, cut into small pieces, add to soup and cook 2 minutes. Stir in lemon juice and peel. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Sprinkle with chives. Makes 6 to 8 servings.

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