Thursday, January 7, 2010

New Year's Feasts, with Apologies to Foghorn Leghorn

Extreme Close-Up of New Year's Eve Hoppin' John
Just a quick report on the New Year's Eve festivities at the Food on the Dole headquarters--we had an impromptu little gathering, which turned into a great sort of multi-tiered evening/morning. It all originated with my wanting to make a big pot of Hoppin' John for the evening: black eyed peas cooked long and slow with a ham hock (basically, the wrist of the pig, often smoked) and rice, and whatever garnish you like thrown in. I made mine with a big ham hock, a diced pork steak, some sausage, onion, celery, red pepper, and a rich pork stock, which I will talk about in a later post. I think I even threw a few lamb cubes in there as well. Plenty of Tabasco, too.

Now, for those of you southerners who are already mad at me for serving this on New Year's Eve rather than New Year's Day, please forgive me. For those of you new to the Hoppin' John tradition, it is a dish that combines the great one pot rice and bean meals of the Caribbean and Africa with those of Europe, all brought to the States during one of our more unfortunate eras, long ago. I've found as many recipes for it as there are cooks out there, and despite this meaning that it is, ultimately, a free-form sort of thing, my experience with Southerners is that they are very, shall we say, passionate about their food and their traditions. And despite a recipe being published in The Carolina Housewife in 1847, Hoppin' John, by my estimations, was largely a dish of those people not routinely included in the Christmas Card lists of the elite.

Moving right along, the dish is routinely served on New Year's Day to bring prosperity for the upcoming year. The peas represent coins, and I've read tales of counting the peas in a serving to forecast one's wealth in the new year, or actually putting coins in each dish. Seeing as how copious amounts of champagne and beer and wine (and later, whiskey) were going to be consumed that night, I opted to keep the coins out of the pot. And, I decided to make the entire menu southern in theme, adding fried chicken legs and macaroni and cheese to the menu. A friend brought some intensely flavorful collard greens stewed with great big ham hocks and a bunch of cornbread. Someone else made Moon Pies. Yes, Moon Pies. And they were great.

I kept the chicken simple--again, I used legs from the great new Gene's Sausage Shop in Lincoln Square, soaked them in buttermilk and then shook them in a bag with just flour, salt, pepper and a touch of cayenne pepper. Fried 'em in my trusty cast iron skillet in shortening as I was low on lard at the time. Crispy and flavorful stuff. Made a batch of bechemel, with butter and flour thickening milk, added a ton of cheddar and swiss cheese to it, and tossed it with cooked pasta shells, covering it with more cheese and baking it until it was gooey and bubbly. And for the star of the show, I browned the pork products, sweated the vegetables in all that nice fat that rendered out for a long, long time, maybe 30-45 minutes, may have put some wine in to deglaze the pot (sorry, hardcore traditionalists!) added my black eyed peas and the stocks I mentioned and let it all cook on a low flame until the peas were almost done; added rice to the pot and let that cook up, and seasoned everything with salt and Tabasco. Tasty stuff. And a ton of it. Made cheaply. I container-ized it and much of it lives in the freezer now; I gave some to friends and am happily revisiting it now and then.
There was a great turn out despite the 2 day notice I gave most people; a bottle of Cynar was brought, the Campari-like artichoke liqueur, which makes really nice sour and bitter drinks when mixed with fresh lemon juice; a surprise guest showed up with a bottle of artisanal Cacha├ža he smuggled back from Brazil; there were almondy little rainbow cookies glued together by apricot preserves and chocolate; those moon pies...mmmm...the moon pies; thoughtfully wrapped individual banana breads for each guest to take home for the morning (what a terrific idea!); grapes to be eaten at the stroke of midnight for another tradition's sake; a violin was produced and played by a musician who had made the scene, so rich and loud in the chamber-like setting, making me feel the way I feel when I head down to the Art Institute and stand in front of certain paintings or sculptures, the power of what I'm witnessing blowing me apart. Finally, just shy of midnight, a friend arrived bearing olives, cheese, more champagne, cotechino (a type of pork sausage we sliced and cooked in lentils, a perfect post-midnight welcome to the new year), and Cuban cigars. We counted down, toasted the new year, ate our grapes, ate more cheese and olives and the cotechino, and smoked our cigars, sharing stories well into the early morning; when everyone had left, it was nearly 6:00am. The next day would be one of recovery, left over Hoppin' John, a gyro from the guy on my street, and lots of sleep. But what a great night, one of the warmer New Year's Eve celebrations I've been part of, and a fitting welcome to a year full of good food and drink.
New Year's Baby Banana Breads