Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Lucky 2010

I once made a frantic late night trip to the grocery store on New Year’s Eve for a can of black eyed peas. Knowing it would be closed the next day, I left a friend’s party, drove to the nearest grocery store, and came back to the party clutching my can of peas. They remained in my purse for the night, and I happily cracked them open the next day and dug in. Why, you ask, would I go to such great lengths for a can of legumes? For the first eighteen years of my life, I would come downstairs on January 1st to find my mother waiting for me to take my first bite of black eyed peas.

A Southern tradition, the eating of black eyed peas on New Year’s Day is said to guarantee good luck for the entire year. I have heard a few “rationalizations” for this legend, one being that the peas resemble coins, and eating them would guarantee wealth. Another story is that during the War, the city of Vicksburg (VA) ran out of food, and would have starved if it wasn’t for a crop of black eyed peas. Whatever the lucky significance, I have never gone a year without having at least one bite of black eyed peas, and I don’t intend to, ever.

Collard greens are another Southern food often consumed on New Year’s Day. Its vibrant green color symbolizes wealth and good fortune. Usually Southern greens are prepared with lots of bacon and pork fat. In uncharacteristic fashion, I omitted the pork and cooked them the healthier way. This way, I can drink the "pot likker," or the liquid that results from the cooked greens. It is usually eaten with cornbread crumbled into it, but I like it in a coffee mug. It's like green V-8.  Whichever way they're prepared, it's essential that they're served with a vinegar pepper sauce not to be confused with hot pepper sauce. Vinegar pepper sauce is a slender jar of clearish liquid with twenty or so small green peppers stuffed into it. Although I’ve eaten my share of collard greens, for some reason my family has always prepared black eyed peas instead. I've decided to do both for a double dose of luck. You can't have too much, you know.

In other parts of the world, such as Germany, Austria, Sweden, Spain, Cuba, and Hungary, pork is considered lucky if consumed on New Year’s Day. According to Bon Appetit, pork is said to symbolize progress because of the animal’s behavior, always rooting and pushing forward with its snout. What do you know? I barbequed two butts a few days ago. I hope leftovers are just as lucky. 

Hoppin’ John
Serves 8

3 slices bacon, chopped
1 small onion, finely chopped
1 stalk celery, finely chopped
1 garlic clove, minced
2 pounds black-eyed peas, soaked overnight
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Red pepper flakes
3 cups water
Hot cooked rice

In a large saucepan, fry the bacon over moderate heat till almost crisp and pour off all but about a little of the grease. Add the onion, celery, and garlic and cook, stirring, for 2 minutes. Add the peas, salt and pepper, red pepper flakes, and water, bring to a boil, reduce the heat to low, cover, and simmer till the peas are tender but not mushy, about 1 hour. Drain the peas. Serve them in small bowls over mounds of hot rice.

Collard Greens
Serves 8

2 bunches fresh collard greens or kale
1 large onion, peeled and diced
1 clove garlic, sliced paper thin
2 tablespoons cider vinegar
1 teaspoon dried red pepper flakes
2 teaspoons salt

Remove the tougher, woody stalks from the collard leaves. Smaller stems are okay. Wash the leaves and cut them into half-inch-wide strips. Put the collards in a large stock pot and cover with cool water. Add the rest of the ingredients. Bring to a boil and cook for at least 2 hours.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Beets Me

Beets are a rather controversial vegetable. Along with Brussels sprouts, people love to hate beets. I was the Queen of Beet Haters until I ordered a roasted beet salad with burrata cheese at Herbsaint in New Orleans. Don't ask me why I ordered it; perhaps my culinary bravado was bolstered by a few glasses of Bordeaux. It was the perfect salad.

Beets have an impossible-to-describe earthy flavor. In the same way you can taste the sunshine that ripened a summer tomato, you can taste the dirt in which beets grow. I mean that in the best way possible. Since the epiphany in New Orleans, I've made a similar salad that fits as a starter for almost every meal.
Burrata cheese is a fresh, creamy cheese encased in mozzarella. It is sublime but a suitable substitute is any fresh chevre (goat cheese). The beauty of this salad is that the beets stain the cheese a vibrant, gorgeous fushia. I love to stack the slices of beets in between clumps of goat cheese and peppery leaves of lettuce.

Roasted Beet and Goat Cheese Salad
Serves 6

3 fresh beets, washed, trimmed of stem and greens
salt and pepper
6 handfuls of mixed spring greens
6 ounces of fresh goat cheese
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Wrap beets in a large rectangle of aluminum foil, making sure to seal top carefully. Place foil package seal side up on oven rack and roast for 45 to 60 minutes. Rinse beets and scrub skins off with a paper towel (the skins will slip off easily). Cut beets into wedges and divide greens, goat cheese and beets on 6 plates.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

A Vintage Find

This week, while at an antique store, I picked up a 1956 edition of Better Crocker’s Picture Cook Book. I have a thing for vintage anything, but it was the yellowed pages and taped bindings that made me unable to put it down and leave. I knew, for fifty years, this book has been loved and used; it didn’t hurt that at ten dollars it was a good deal. I was especially intrigued by the claim on the inside cover page: “It’s A Cook Book With A Heart.” Modern cookbooks are mostly filled with recipes accompanied by spectacular pictures. This book is vastly different. The graphics are either stylized illustrations or grainy photos no bigger than a post card. The font is tiny; the words are magnificent. From a section on vegetables: “…Vegetables are like people. By treating them with sympathy and understanding, they give us their best in color, nutrients, and flavor” (421). I couldn’t help but read aloud the witticisms present on each page. Explanations of culinary terms made me laugh: canap├ęs = “midget open faced sandwiches" (304). Despite the simplistic language, I quickly found this book held a weighty collection of meaningful recipes.

Because of the season, I flipped straight to the soup section. I was rewarded with a passage about pot au feu, a French beef stew: “All the flavors are extracted and blended during the long cooking while the kettle smiles and chuckles, but never laughs outright in a full rollicking boil” (409). Inspired, I flipped through to find directions for our dinner. Only a 1956 Betty Crocker cookbook would publish such culinary wisdom and then omit a recipe. I perused the soup recipes and found a recipe for turkey soup.

1956 Turkey Soup
Serves 6-8

Turkey soup is the quintessential end of the holidays. As the book states, it is the “curtain call of the holiday bird” (413). You can use a chicken, goose, turkey, or duck. The recipe in the book is pretty bare bones (pun intended), so I decided to add a few of my own additions.

1 bird carcass with plenty of meat
3 stalks celery, chopped
1 carrot, chopped
1 onion, diced
6 peppercorns
1 bay leaf
½ teaspoon chopped fresh thyme
1 teaspoon chopped fresh sage
8 ounces wide egg noodles

Place carcass and peppercorns in a large soup pot. Cover with water. Simmer for 2 hours. Remove meat from carcass and set aside (discard bones). Strain stock. Add meat to stock in pot. Add celery, carrot, onion, bay, thyme and sage. Bring to boil and simmer for 30 minutes until vegetables are tender. Bring back to boil and add egg noodles. Cook for 15 minutes until noodles are cooked. Salt and pepper to taste. Serve.

On a final note, who wouldn’t want to take culinary advice from a book that claims butter "promotes growth" and "builds resistance to disease”(45)? I'm all for the nutritional advice.

Cited: Betty Crocker’s Picture Cook Book: Revised and Enlarged. 2nd Ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1956.