Looking for some luck? Try cowpeas

Published 12:00 am Saturday, December 26, 2009

Black-eyed peas or cowpeas’ origin is in east Africa where they grow wild. The slave trade introduced them into the Caribbean and the U.S. as early as the 1600s. They were grown in early America as animal fodder and to improve the soil. Although Jefferson ate them at Monticello, they were often associated with slaves and the poor. So how did they come to be associated with New Year’s and good luck?

These symbols of “good luck’ were recorded in the Babylonian Talmud (500CE) and the accepted custom was to eat the symbols and it is followed by Sephardic Jews and Israelites to this day. Sephardic Jews arrived in the state of Georgia in the 1730s and this Jewish practice was adopted by non-Jews about the time of the Civil War, according to one author. Adding to this, the Union troops during the War, especially in areas targeted by Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman, stripped the countryside of all stored food, crops and livestock — destroying what they couldn’t carry away. At the time Northerners considered “field peas” and field corn suitable only for animal fodder and didn’t take them.

For whatever reason, Southerners traditionally eat black-eyed peas for good luck on New Year’s. They are usually boiled with salt pork or fatback.

I was looking for some new recipes to do this New Year’s and found a couple. The first combines peas and collards (that other good luck symbol of New Year’s). It’s from “Saveur” and I think is a winner.

Hoppin’ John Soup

Serves 8-10

1 lb. dried black-eyed peas

1 smoked ham bone or two hocks

¼ cup canola oil

½ cup chopped cooked ham

¼ tsp. red chile flakes

2 cloves garlic, finely chopped

1 jalapeño, stemmed, seeded, and finely chopped

1 large carrot, finely chopped

1 large onion, finely chopped

1 rib celery, finely chopped

1 bay leaf

1 lb. collard greens, ribs removed, leaves roughly chopped

2 tbsp. apple cider vinegar

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

5 cups cooked long-grain white rice

Chopped tomatoes and scallions, for garnish

Bring peas, ham bone and 8 cups water to a boil in a 6-quart Dutch oven. Reduce heat to medium-low and cook, skimming foam occasionally, until peas are tender, about 45 minutes. Drain peas, reserving 1 cup cooking liquid along with ham bone; set aside.

Heat oil in a 12-quart pot over medium-high heat. Add chopped ham, chiles, garlic, jalapeños, carrot, onion, celery, and bay leaf and cook, stirring occasionally, until soft, about 8 minutes. Add reserved black-eyes peas, ham bone, and reserved cooking liquid, along with collards and 12 cups water. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to medium-low, and simmer until collards are tender, about 1 hour. Stir in vinegar and season with salt and pepper. Spoon rice into bowls and ladle soup over rice and add garnishes.

If you need a quick black-eyed pea recipe for the New Year’s holiday, here is one that is quick and good from the cookbook Screen Doors and Sweet Tea, by Martha Hall Foose.

Delta Peas and Rice

2 ½ cups frozen black-eyed peas

Kosher salt

2 Tablespoons soybean oil

1 medium white onion, peeled and diced

2 garlic cloves, minced

2 cups diced, peeled ripe tomatoes

1 teaspoon thyme leaves

1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar

1 teaspoon sugar

¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes

3 cups cooked long-grain white rice

¼ cup minced parsley

Freshly ground black pepper

In a large stockpot or Dutch oven, combine the peas, one teaspoon salt, and enough water to cover. Simmer the peas over medium-low heat until tender, about 20 minutes. Drain the peas and set aside.

Heat a Dutch oven over medium heat and add the oil and onion. Cook and stir the onion for five minutes or until tender. Add the garlic and continue to cook for one minute. Add the tomatoes, thyme, vinegar, sugar, and red pepper flakes. Cook, stirring occasionally, for 15 minutes. Add the black-eyed peas and simmer for 15 minutes.

Stir in the cooked rice and parsley. Season with salt and pepper before serving. Happy New Year!

P.S. If you don’t get around to fixing cowpeas for New Year’s you might do it Jan. 5, which is celebrated as George Washington Carver Recognition Day, since his birthday is unknown.

In the early 20th century, agricultural scientist George Washington Carver increased the popularity of cowpeas, as he called them, through his work at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. Carver encouraged farmers to grow cowpeas, emphasizing their value as a nitrogen fixer. He taught women how to cook cowpeas. He published four bulletins promoting their cultivation and use. Bulletin No. 35, published in 1917, contains 40 recipes including croquettes, griddlecakes, pea coffee and cowpea custard pie.