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Happy New Year: Vegetarian Hoppin’ John

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Eating black-eyed peas and rice in the form of a dish called Hoppin’ John and Stewed Greens on New Year’s Day is a Southern tradition. Folklore says the combination will bring luck and money in the upcoming year. Typically, the dried peas are black-eyed peas and there is generally a hunk of meat bobbing in the pot. This year, I wanted to mix things up and create a recipe for a Vegetarian Hoppin’ John.

While I like the starchiness of the mildly flavored black-eyed pea, another change I wanted to make was in the type of pea I used in the dish. I set out to cook the pea that was likely the original pea used in Hoppin’ John, an heirloom pea that was once grown along the Georgia and South Carolina coast known as the Sea Island Red Pea.  (Groups like the Southern Foodways Alliance and the Carolina Gold Rice Foundation — are working to bring back heirloom seeds and plants including field peas such as the Sea Island Red, available from Anson Mills.)

Both the commonly available black-eyed peas and more rare Sea Island Red Peas are legumes, the seeds of any of various bean or pea plants that consists of a case that splits along both sides when ripe and have the seeds attached to one side of the case. More commonly, both peas are known as field peas or cowpeas. These colloquial terms come from the farming practice in which the remnants of the plants from the pea harvest were left in the field for grazing cattle. It should be also be mentioned that field peas are actually beans, not peas.

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The importance of field peas in Southern foodways cannot be overstated. They were eaten fresh in the summer and dried for use in the winter. A simple dish like Hoppin’ John is one of the cornerstones of Southern cuisine. Field peas became a staple food among Southerners, rich and poor, black and white, in the deep south as they are drought resistant and easily adaptable to varying types of soils. Peas have long been intercropped with rice, corn, and wheat. According to the Clemson University Cooperative Extension, most varieties of Southern peas produce their own nitrogen, making them good choices for soil-building summer crops.

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My dear friend and colleague Sandra Gutierrez  has written Beans and Field Peas, a UNC Press Savor the South® cookbook.  In it she explores classic Southern recipes like Hoppin’ John, shares recipes for New-Southern dishes, and rounds out her wide-ranging list of dishes with international bean and field pea recipes. She also examines the culinary history and cultural nuances of field peas and observes that what has long been a way of life for so many is now trendy. Indeed, all over the world, people rich, poor, or in between rely on legumes, the “culinary equalizer,” as she puts it. Sandra’s recipes are delicious and well-written. If you are interested in trying new or just new-to-you recipes for field peas (and beans) then this is definitely the book for you.

I’m sharing my recipe for a Vegetarian Hoppin’ John and her recipe for a more traditional Hoppin’ John. Best wishes for a healthy and Happy New Year!

Bon Appétit Y’all!
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Vegetarian Hoppin’ John 

Serves 8 to 10

Changing the pea was easy-peasy enough, but what about the salty, smoky, creamy broth typically associated with Hoppin’ John? I exchanged smoked ham hock with a rind of Parmigiano Reggiano, used rich vegetable stock, and added a teaspoon of smoked paprika and a fresh bay leaf for good measure. Ok, so it’s not completely vegetarian, but this combination allowed the meaty mineralogy of the Sea Island Red Peas to still maintain center stage. The peas produce a light gravy which I further enhanced by smashing some of the peas with an old-fashioned potato masher. So as to not overcook the peas, cook the rice separately and serve the peas on top.

2 cups dried field peas, such as Sea Island Red or Black-Eyed peas, soaked overnight
1 tablespoon pure olive oil
1 onion, finely diced
1 carrot, finely diced
1 stalk celery, finely diced
2 garlic cloves, very finely chopped
2 quarts vegetable or chicken stock, if preferred
1 parmesan rind
1 bay leaf
1 teaspoon smoked paprika
Cooked rice, for serving
Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper

Drain the peas. Heat the oil in a pot over high heat. Add the onion, carrot, and celery and cook until the onion is soft and translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and cook until aromatic, 45 to 60 seconds. Add the drained peas, stock, parmesan rind, bay leaf, and smoked paprika. Season with salt and pepper. Stir to combine. Bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce heat to simmer and cook until the peas are tender, 1 to 1 -1/2 hours.

Remove the parmesan rind and bay leaf. Using an old-fashioned potato masher, mash some of the peas into the broth to form a gravy. Taste and adjust for seasoning with salt and pepper. Spoon the peas and gravy over the rice. Serve immediately.

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Sandra Gutierrez’s Hoppin’ John 

Serves 6

¼ pound bacon or smoked ham
½ cup finely chopped yellow onion
½ large green bell pepper, cored, seeded and finely chopped (about ½ cup)
2 large garlic cloves, minced
1 cup long grain rice
½ pound cooked black-eyed or cowpeas or red peas (about 1½ cups)
2 cups water
⅛ teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Place the bacon in a 3-½ to 4-quart Dutch oven, set over medium-high heat. Cook until the bacon renders and begins to brown and get crispy, about 3 to 4 minutes. Add the onion and bell pepper; cook until they begin to soften, about 2-½ to 3 minutes. Add the garlic and cook until fragrant or about 30 seconds. Add the rice and stir well to coat all the grains with oil, about 30 seconds. Add the water and stir the brown bits at the bottom of the pan. Add the peas, salt, cayenne, and pepper. Bring the liquid to a boil; cover, reduce the heat to low, and simmer the rice for 20 to 25 minutes or until all of the liquid has been absorbed.

Photography by Virginia Willis

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Virginia Willis

Georgia-born French-trained Chef Virginia Willis’ biography includes making chocolate chip cookies with Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, foraging for berries in the Alaskan wilderness, harvesting capers in the shadow of a smoldering volcano in Sicily, and hunting for truffles in France. She is talent and chef-instructor for the digital streaming platform Food Network Kitchen. Her segments feature authentic and innovative Southern cooking. She was the celebrity chef at the Mansion at Churchill Downs for the 143rd running of the Kentucky Derby. Virginia has spoken at SXSW, cooked for the James Beard Foundation, and beguiled celebrities such as Bill Clinton, Morgan Freeman, and Jane Fonda with her cooking — but it all started in her grandmother’s country kitchen. Recently, her work has been inspired by her weight loss success story, Virginia has lost 65# and kept it off for over 2 1/2 years! “If a French-trained, Southern chef can do it, you can, too.” She is the author of Fresh Start; Secrets of the Southern Table; Lighten Up, Y’all; Bon Appétit, Y’all; Basic to Brilliant, Y’all; Okra; and Grits. Lighten Up, Y’all won a James Beard Foundation Award of Excellence in the Focus on Health Category. Lighten Up, Y’all as well as her first cookbook, Bon Appétit, Y’all, were finalists in the Best American Cookbook for the International Association of Cookbook Awards and were also named by the Georgia Center of the Book as “Books Georgians Should Read.” She is the former TV kitchen director for Martha Stewart Living, Bobby Flay, and Nathalie Dupree; has worked in Michelin-starred restaurants; and traveled the world producing food stories – from making cheese in California to escargot farming in France. She has appeared on Food Network’s Chopped, CBS This Morning, Fox Family and Friends, Martha Stewart Living, and as a judge on Throwdown with Bobby Flay. She’s been featured in the New York Times, the Washington Post, People Magazine, Eater, and Food52 and has contributed to Eating Well, GRLSQUASH, Culture, Garden & Gun, and Bon Appétit, and more. The Chicago Tribune praised her as one of “Seven Food Writers You Need to Know.” Her legion of fans loves her down-to-earth attitude, approachable spirit, and traveling exploits. Her culinary consulting company, Virginia Willis Culinary Enterprises, Inc specializes in content creation, recipe development, culinary editorial and production services, cookbook writing, media training, spokesperson and brand representation, and public speaking. Virginia is on the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch Blue Ribbon Task Force, the Atlanta Community Food Bank Advisory Board, as well as the Community Farmers Market Advisory Board. She is a food and hunger advocate for No Kid Hungry and a premier member of the No Kid Hungry Atlanta Society. She a member of The James Beard Foundation, Chef’s Collaborative, Georgia Organics, and Southern Foodways Alliance.

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