Hoppin John’s Good for Luck and Budget

Meat from a ham hock with cooked black-eyed peas is the start of Hoppin’ John.

It is supposed to be good luck to eat Hoppin’ John on New Year’s, and I missed the opportunity. So this Southern regional rice and black-eyed pea dish is going to have to benefit just my budget, which it does beautifully, as do most of those rice and bean combinations we hear about. They are inexpensive, wholesome, and on cold (or even mild) winter days they are just the ticket for a one-pot supper.

Don’t ask me why I had a jar of black-eyed peas sitting in the pantry, but in a fit of tidying up, I rediscovered them and remembered how much I like the flavor of the peas when they are stewed with a smoked ham hock, a little red pepper, an onion, then rice added to thicken it all up sufficiently to eat with a fork. Serve salad or cole slaw on the side and some pickles, and it is a perfect meal. You can add enough chili pepper or cayenne to turn this into a scorcher for those who relish fiery Buffalo wings or multi-alarm chili; you could even offer this for a Super Bowl party. I don’t like my food to hurt, so I ratchet back the capsicum heat a bit. A bottle of hot sauce on the table gives the person who likes a blistered tongue the do-it-yourself wherewithal.

There are two handy things about this recipe: you can make the dish in stages, finishing it when you need it; and you can double it to set aside enough in the freezer for a conveniently quick supper. You can make this dish in one fell swoop, starting about two hours before you serve it. Or you can cook the peas and ham hock together early in the day, then add the rice to it an hour or so before serving. If I want some for the freezer, I put the cooked peas and ham hock away without the rice, and then combine them all when I am preparing supper.

I learned this recipe from Jim and Cheryl Jamison, who wrote an admirable cookbook fourteen years ago called American Home Cooking, using recipes they collected as they traveled around the country. I have made it several times, even though I am a baked beans and brown bread kind of girl. There are lots of excuses for why it is called Hoppin’ John, but I don’t believe any of them.

Hoppin’ John
1 cup dried black eyed peas
1 smoked ham hock, or ham bone with meat on it
1 large onion, chopped
6 cups of water
A sprinkle of red pepper flakes or cayenne pepper, optional to taste
Salt and black pepper to taste
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1 cup rice
Hot sauce, optional

Put the peas, ham hock, onion, and water in a large, heavy-bottomed cook pan. Add the red pepper, salt and black pepper, thyme. Bring to a boil, then lower the heat and simmer for about an hour, or until the peas are tender but haven’t broken apart. As soon as they are tender, take the pan off the heat and drain it, reserving two cups of the liquid to add back into the pan. If your ham hock has meat on it, pick the meat off, and cut it into bite-sized pieces and return them to the pan. If you have extra liquid, save it for soup. If you don’t have enough, add water. Add the rice, and cook until the rice is done, about twenty to twenty-five minutes. Serve it with the optional hot sauce.

Makes 4 to 6 servings.

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About Sandy Oliver

Sandy Oliver Sandy is a freelance food writer with the column Taste Buds appearing weekly since 2006 in the Bangor Daily News, and regular columns in Maine Boats, Homes, and Harbors magazine and The Working Waterfront. Besides freelance food writing, she is a pioneering food historian beginning her work in 1971 at Mystic Seaport Museum, where she developed a fireplace cooking program in an 1830s house. After moving to Maine in 1988, Sandy wrote, Saltwater Foodways: New Englanders and Their Foods at Sea and Ashore in the 19th Century published in 1995. She is the author of The Food of Colonial and Federal America published in fall of 2005, and Giving Thanks: Thanksgiving History and Recipes from Pilgrims to Pumpkin Pie which she co-authored with Kathleen Curtin. She often speaks to historical organizations and food professional groups around the country, organizes historical dinners, and conducts classes and workshops in food history and in sustainable gardening and cooking. Sandy lives on Islesboro, an island in Penobscot where she gardens, preserves, cooks and teaches sustainable lifeways.