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FOOD : Good-Luck Stew : A Traditional Southern Dish Kicks Off the New Year

December 27, 1987|JUDITH SIMS | Judith Sims is an editor at this magazine.

HUMAN BEINGS SEEM to crave tradition--those comforting repetitions of events and patterns that attach personal meaning to commonplace acts and events. Baking mother's favorite spice cake for her birthday. Making one new Christmas tree ornament every year. Using grandfather's Old World recipe for holiday punch.

New Year's is heaped high with celebration both meaningful and trivial. A time of renewal, the beginning of a hopeful new cycle, we pay tribute (and make wishes and promises) with special observances and food. For some this is a daylong pig-out of franks, chips, beer and dawn-to-dusk football. For others, especially those from the South, the only New Year's dish is Hoppin' John. Southerners rich and poor are quite serious about their luck, and Hoppin' John--a thick and hearty dish of black-eyed peas, rice and smoked ham hocks--eaten on Jan. 1 is supposed to bring good luck in the following year.

The origin of Hoppin' John is shrouded in Southern mist; one Dixie cookbook states that each black-eyed pea (actually a member of the bean family) represents a Confederate soldier killed in the Civil War. A happier metaphor has the peas representing pocket change, and the obligatory collard greens, served on the side, standing for folding money.

Down South, not eating black-eyed peas on New Year's Day just about insures doom. One friend remembers that Hoppin' John was so much a part of her Texas family's New Year's tradition that when she was away from home for the first time, without a kitchen, she bought a can of beans and ate them cold, with ketchup, right out of the can.

Did it bring her luck? "Well," she drawls, "I'm still here."

You don't have to be Southern to revel in Hoppin' John's delicious, earthy simplicity. And you won't have to spend much time in the kitchen during the Rose Parade: Make it two nights before (unless you plan to spend New Year's Eve in the kitchen), and you won't miss a single float or touchdown. Serve Hoppin' John with steamed collard greens or kale and corn bread, and greet the new year with a confident grin.

For those who like to deviate from tradition without abandoning it entirely, we offer an alternative dish of black-eyed peas, beans, lentils and wheat berries, guaranteed to satisfy the hungriest lumberjacks. If you can find any.

Hoppin' John

3 cups black-eyed peas

Water or chicken broth

3 pounds smoked ham hocks

1 onion, chopped

1 bay leaf

1 jalapeno pepper, minced

Salt and pepper

Dash cayenne pepper

1 cup uncooked rice

Steamed collard greens

Chopped green onions

Cover peas generously with water and soak overnight. Drain and place in kettle. Add ham hocks, onion, bay leaf, jalapeno, salt and pepper to taste and cayenne pepper. Cover with water or broth and bring to boil. Cover and simmer about 2 1/2 hours. Remove ham hocks from kettle and cool slightly; remove skin and bones and excess fat from ham hocks and return meat to kettle. Remove and discard bay leaf. Bring 1 1/2 cups water to boil, add rice, cover and cook slowly until tender, about 20 to 30 minutes. Serve hot ham and pea mixture over rice with steamed collard greens. Garnish with green onions. Makes 6 servings.

Note: Rice may be cooked in the same pot with the peas and ham hocks; the dish will taste even better, but it won't look as pretty.

Bean and Wheat Stew (Adapted from a recipe in "Whole Grains" by Sara Pitzer)

1/2 cup dried kidney beans

1/2 cup dried navy pea beans or Great Northern beans

1/2 cup dried black-eyed peas

1/2 cup dried lentils

2 smoked ham hocks

Water

2 pounds chicken parts, browned

1 carrot, chopped

1 large onion, chopped

2 cloves garlic, minced

1 bay leaf

1/2 teaspoon thyme

1/2 teaspoon sage

Salt

1 cup whole wheat berries

2 to 3 tablespoons sherry

Wash all the dried beans except lentils, and place in a large soup kettle, covering with cold water. Let beans soak overnight. Next morning, add lentils and ham hocks and simmer with the beans, adding fresh water if needed, for 1 hour. Add chicken parts, carrot, onion, garlic, bay leaf, thyme, sage and salt. Simmer about 1 hour more or just until chicken is tender, stirring occasionally and adding water if necessary. Remove chicken and set aside. Add wheat berries and simmer about 45 minutes longer, or until wheat is tender but still chewy. Remove ham hocks from kettle and cool slightly; remove skin and bones and excess fat from ham hocks and reserved chicken parts, and return meat to kettle. Remove and discard bay leaf. Just before serving, add sherry. Makes 8 servings.

Styled by Wendy Blasdel / Props courtesy of Geary's North, Beverly Hills.

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