Hop to it, baby


A bowl of Hoppin' John and collard greens is a fine way to start 2009.

A bowl of Hoppin' John and collard greens is a fine way to start 2009.

I’ve been in transition for some time now, but things started to fall into place when my moving pod of belongings arrived from Alabama on New Year’s Eve. As we unloaded box after box of kitchen gear, I thought, “Ah, now I can make this. I can make that.”

To pay homage to my former home, and because, hell, we all could use some good luck going into 2009, I decided to make a pot of Hoppin’ John. The Southern Low Country dish is a simple melange of black-eyed peas, rice, tomatoes, and some kind of pork (a ham hock, sausage, bacon, whatever), and it’s supposed to bring good luck to those who partake on New Year’s Day.

For the most luck, you should eat a bowl of the stuff at the stroke of midnight. We were at a party in  a penthouse condo overlooking Marina del Rey at midnight, so I sought my luck in a lychee martini. That meant we had our Hoppin’ John at the end of New Year’s Day, so we may only acquire a little luck. I’ll take it. In any case, I figured a pot of Hoppin’ John and the traditional side of collard greens would have  some curative benefits for my mate, who was feeling a tad delicate after the previous evening’s festivities.

Of course, Hoppin’ John’s good-luck powers are well known beyond the South, but I still figured there’d be no problem finding the ingredients at Whole Foods in Venice on New Year’s afternoon. That’s where my luck started to waver. When I approached the bulk bean bins, I was dismayed to find  the dried black-eyed peas bin empty. Not a lone pea to be found. Uh, oh, a whole lot of folks in the Marina and Venice were eating our good luck. Not to worry, I assumed there must be frozen or canned or some kind of black-eyed pea elsewhere in this vast food temple. 

The last two cans of black-eyed peas in the Venice Whole Foods. Good thing I already had a bag of popcorn rice.

My prize: The last two cans of black-eyed peas in the Venice Whole Foods. Good thing I already had a bag of popcorn rice.

Um, not really. No peas in the frozen section. No packaged dried peas, either. Canned peas were starting to sound really, really good at that point. Of course, the shelf space for canned black-eyed peas was empty. I fished around in the dark recesses of the shelf and came up with The Last Two Cans of Black-Eyed Peas. Eureka!

I had better luck finding  collards in the produce section. I picked up two  gorgeous bunches with giant, fresh, green leaves that bode well for prosperity in the new year. At the very least, we’d get a ton of antioxidants.

So, it was in a somewhat triumphant mood that I returned home to make a pot of Hoppin’ John and a side of collard greens.

Hoppin’ John from a Can

I adapted this recipe from Matt Lee and Ted Lee’s version for The New York Times. Canned beans may not have been my first choice, but since I didn’t have to soak dried beans, this New Year’s Day specialty came together quickly. Louisiana popcorn rice is an aromatic long-grain variety that’s a Cajun speciality; it actually smells liked popped corn. You can use any type of long-grain rice. I had some lovely Black Forest bacon on hand, but you could substitute any bacon, a more-traditional ham hock, or even sausage. Serve with hot sauce–Tabasco would be a natural, but I love the bright flavor of Asian-style sriracha.

3 thick-cut slices bacon, chopped

1 cup chopped onion

2 (15-ounce) cans black-eyed peas, rinsed and drained

3 cups fat-free, low-sodium chicken broth

1 teaspoon kosher salt

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1/8 teapoon cayenne

6 canned whole peeled tomatoes

11/2 cups Louisiana popcorn rice (or any long-grain rice)

Hot sauce (optional) 

1. Cook bacon over medium heat in a large saucepan for 3 minutes, or until the bacon renders its fat. Add onion; cook 5 minutes, or until tender. Add peas, broth, salt, and peppers;. Use kitchen shears to cut up the tomatoes in a bowl or measuring cup; add tomatoes to the pan. Bring to a boil; add rice. Reduce the heat, cover, and simmer 20 minutes. Remove pan from heat, and let stand, covered, 5 minutes. Fluff with a fork. Serve with hot sauce. Yields 6 servings.

Quick Collards

Traditionally, collards are cooked with pork fat and boiled. For an old-school version, try Southern Living‘s Country-Style Collards. Since my Hoppin’ John was coming together quickly, I opted to chiffonade my collards and saute them. This will look like an ungodly amount greens once you have them trimmed and sliced, but it cooks down, much like spinach. I find it’s easiest to wash the greens in a colander or salad spinner after they’ve been trimmed and sliced .

1 pound fresh collard greens

2 tablespoons olive oil

2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced

1 teaspoon kosher salt

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1/4 teaspoon cayenne

1/2 cup fat-free, low-sodium chicken broth

1. Trim the center ribs from the collard leaves. Stack the leaves and roll them up like a cigar; thinly slice (chiffonade).

2. Heat a sauté pan over medium-high heat. Add oil. Add garlic; sauté 30 seconds. Add a large handful of collards to pan; cook until collards wilt. Repeat with remaining collards until all of them are in the pan. Stir in salt and peppers; sauté 2 minutes. Add broth; cook 3 minutes or until liquid almost evaporates and collards are tender. Yields 4-6 servings.




Saving money tops food trends for 2009

In 2009, chefs and home cooks alike will turn to cheaper cuts of meat to save pennies.

It’s that time, when “experts” and the rest of us look ahead to what’s in store for the new year. And it would appear that my friends are bona fide trendsetters. Months ago, they started cooking up cheapo recession fare, and now they’ve challenged each other other to whip up dinner for less than $3 per serving (or is it $3 for both of them? Whatever, they’re doing it, albeit with mixed results).

People around the world are feeling insecure and are already looking to re-establish a sense of stability in their lives. A good home-cooked meal can do that. 

They’re not the only ones coping with rising food costs and smaller budgets. Many food trends for 2009, not surprisingly, are driven by the current dour economy, which makes value-oriented items more appealing than ever. “People around the world are feeling insecure and are already looking to re-establish a sense of stability in their lives,” says Joan Holleran, director of research at the global trends research firm Mintel. One way to accomplish that is with the food you eat, and consumers will be more selective than ever about how they spend their money. James Oliver Cury of Epicurious predicts “value” will eclipse “sustainable” as the foodie buzzword of 2009.  These are just a few ways the cheap-and-cheerful trend will manifest itself.

Comfort food still reigns supreme. You might think this has peaked, but consumers will crave familiar ingredients and dishes more than ever. Bon Appetit put peanut butter at the top of its list for 2009, along with eggs in any form. Both are inexpensive sources of protein. The magazine also predicts more restaurants will serve breakfast all day–always an affordable, filling, and comforting option. Overall, restaurant diners will favor bistro-type eateries serving familiar, high-quality, well-priced food. Expect spaghetti and meatballs to “make a roaring comeback,” according to restaurant consultants Baum & Whiteman.

Goat meat may go mainstream in 2009.

Beware, billy: Food watchers say goat meat may go mainstream in 2009.

Cooks will use cheaper cuts of meat. The National Restaurants Consultants forecasts the price of beef will skyrocket, making less-expensive cuts–short ribs, hanger steaks, brisket, chuck roasts, and the like–a better buy. These cuts typically are tougher, but long, slow cooking techniques like braising, stewing, or pot roasting yield tender, hearty results.  Other types of meat will go mainstream, too. Among them: goat, according to “trendologists” at the Center for Culinary Development. George Wilson, of the Australian Wildlife Services, has proposed promoting kangaroo as an environmentally friendly alternative to beef cattle; unlike cattle, kangaroos don’t produce methane and they have high levels of healthy fats.

Tip: When shopping for meat, remember anything with “loin” in the name = tender = more expensive. “Chuck” or “shoulder” = tougher = cheaper. 

Look for offal recipes. Other cultures, especially those in Asia, have a long tradition of using all of the animal, because meat is considered too precious a resource to waste. American cooks are expected to adopt a similar “nose-to-tail” approach, making use of everything from cheeks and tongue to tripe and trotters.

Indulgences won’t go away, but they will shrink. The expense of food may help all of us with portion control. If a beef is expensive, for example, we may opt for the occasional 4-ounce serving of  pricey tenderloin. The high cost of ingredients is driving more restaurants to add small-plate options to their menus. 

Type in your ZIP code at Ueatcheap.com to map out meals under $10.

Type in your ZIP code at Ueatcheap.com to map out meals under $10.

We’ll share information to find affordable meals. Call it Eating 2.0, but diners will continue to flock to the Web in search of the good, cheap eats.  Sites like Slashfood, Serious Eats, and Eater LA (and its sisters Eater NY and Eater SF)  specialize in content by and for avid foodies while users rate restaurants on Yelp and Ueatcheap.com

People will stay home. Although restaurateurs will do their best to lure customers with bargains, most of us are likely to dine out less and eat in more in 2009. Analysts at Mintel forecast more entertaining at home while the folks at UK-based thefoodpeople predict we’ll whip up cocktails at home rather than hit the bars.