Take a few shortcuts to a Southern New Year feast

You can take a few shortcuts to a Southern New Year feast

kpurvis@charlotteobserver.comDecember 25, 2012 

  • Canned tasting: Black-eyed peas They’re just so tempting. But how are those canned black-eyed peas? We tried five brands. The result: 1. Glory Seasoned Southern-Style Black-eyed Peas. Glory’s collards and black-eyed peas both had the best texture and flavor in the canned products. Unfortunately, they also were very salty. The reduced-sodium version is a good idea. 2. Bush’s Best Black-eyed Peas. A good choice, with pinkish peas and good flavor. 3. Hanover Black-eyed Peas. The peas had a firm texture, although the packing liquid was very thin. 4. Luck’s Black-eyed Peas. The peas had a texture like boiled peanuts, while the liquid had very little flavor. 5. Margaret Holmes Seasoned Black-eyed Peas. Mushy peas and gray packing liquid, with a very salty, hammy taste. Kathleen Purvis
  • The slow way: Collards and black-eyed peas Ham stock: To make a seasoned stock for cooking black-eyed peas and collards, Virginia Willis starts with two smoked ham hocks and 4 to 6 cups chicken stock. Bring the stock and the hocks to a boil over high heat. Decrease the heat to low and simmer about 30 minutes. Use as a base for cooking black-eyed peas or collards. Collards: They cook down, so it will look like you’re starting with a mountain of raw collards. Make sure you have a big cutting board and a big pot. Fold each big leaf in half and cut along the stem until it narrows to about 1/4 inch wide. Discard the stem. Fill a clean sink with cold water and add the leaves. Swish them and lift them, letting any sand sink to the bottom. Empty the sink and wash them again, to be sure. Stack the leaves, roll them up and cut them into ribbons. Bring the ham stock back to a boil. Add the collards by big handfuls, stirring down to make room before adding more. Reduce heat to a simmer and cook slowly until tender, about 1 hour. Dried black-eyed peas: Place the peas in a fine-mesh sieve and rinse well. Pick through them and remove any debris. Place in a large pot and cover with cold water. Bring to a boil over high heat, remove from heat and let stand 1 hour. Discard any floating peas. Drain well. Bring ham stock to a boil and add peas. Reduce heat to low, partially cover and simmer until peas are tender, about 2 hours.
  • Texas Caviar Salad From “Quick-Fix Southern,” by Rebecca Lang (Andrews McMeel, 2011). This is a great way to turn canned black-eyed peas into a side dish with bright flavors and textures. 2 (15.8-ounce) cans black-eyed peas, rinsed and drained 2 (11-ounce) cans shoepeg corn, drained 1 medium red bell pepper, cored, seeded and diced 1 large sweet onion, diced 3/4 cup apple cider vinegar 6 pepperoncini peppers, cored and diced 3/4 cup liquid from pepperoncini jar 1/4 cup packed light brown sugar COMBINE all the ingredients in a large bowl. Stir to mix well. Cover and refrigerate up to 2 weeks. YIELD: 8 to 10 servings.
  • Black-Eyed Pea and Ham Hock Soup From “Bon Appétit, Y’all: Recipes and Stories from Three Generations of Southern Cooking,” by Virginia Willis (Ten Speed Press, 2008). 2 cups dried black-eyed peas, washed and picked over 4 to 6 cups chicken stock or low-fat, reduced-sodium chicken broth 2 smoked ham hocks 1 tablespoon canola oil 1 onion, preferably Vidalia, chopped 2 carrots, chopped 2 stalks celery, chopped 2 cloves garlic, minced 1 teaspoon red pepper flakes 1 bunch collards, tough stems removed and discarded, leaves thinly sliced Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper PLACE peas in a large bowl and cover with water. Soak overnight. Or place in a large pot of water and bring to a boil over high heat, then remove from heat and set aside for 1 hour. Discard any floating peas and drain. BRING the stock and ham hocks to a boil in a pot over high heat. Reduce heat to low and simmer at least 30 minutes. HEAT oil in a large, heavy-bottomed Dutch oven over medium heat. Add onion, carrots and celery and cook until soft and translucent, 3 to 5 minutes. Add garlic and cook until fragrant, 45 to 60 seconds. ADD the drained peas to the pot with the red pepper flakes, ham hocks and stock. Bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce heat to low and simmer until the peas are tender, 2 to 2 1/2 hours. RETURN the soup to a boil just before serving. Stir in the collards. Cook until wilted, about 5 minutes. Adjust seasoning with salt and pepper. NOTE: Willis says that canned peas are too soft, but you can make the soup with frozen black-eyed peas. Reduce the cooking time according to the package instructions. YIELD: 6 servings.
  • Black-eyed Pea Hummus This is the perfect dip for a New Year’s Day party. From cookinglight.com. 3 cloves garlic, peeled 1/2 cup fresh lemon juice (from 2 to 3 lemons) 1/3 cup tahini (sesame-seed paste) 1 teaspoon ground cumin 1/2 teaspoon salt 1/2 teaspoon paprika 2 (15.8-ounce) cans black-eyed peas, drained Fresh pitas, cut in triangles, or pita chips DROP garlic through the chute of a food processor with the motor running and process briefly until well-chopped. ADD the lemon juice, tahini, ground cumin, salt, paprika and peas to the work bowl of the food processor. Process until smooth, scraping down the bowl if needed. SERVE at room temperature with pitas or pita chips. YIELD: About 3 cups.
  • Baked Grits & Greens Adapted from “Southern Living Home Cooking Basics,” (Oxmoor House, 2012). Even collard-haters won’t object to this warm, homey casserole. It works great with frozen collards. 2 1/2 to 3 cups frozen collards 1 teaspoon garlic salt 1 cup uncooked quick-cooking grits (not instant) 1/3 cup finely chopped red onion 5 tablespoons butter, divided 2 large eggs 1 1/2 cups shredded Parmesan 1/2 cup bottled creamy Caesar dressing 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper 1 1/4 cups coarsely crushed garlic-flavored croutons PLACE frozen collards in a strainer and rinse quickly with cold water. Drain, squeezing to remove most of the water. Set aside. (It’s OK if there are some frozen chunks.) BRING 4 cups of water and garlic salt to boil in a large saucepan over medium-high heat. Gradually stir in grits. Reduce heat to medium. Cook 5 minutes, stirring often so it doesn’t stick. Remove from heat and stir in onion and 3 tablespoons butter. PLACE eggs in a large mixing bowl and beat lightly. Stir in the collards, Parmesan, dressing and pepper. Stir in about a quarter of the hot grits, stirring quickly so the eggs don’t cook. Stir in the remaining grits, stirring constantly. Pour into a lightly greased 13-by-9-inch baking dish. (Can be made ahead to this point and refrigerated for 24 hours. Bring to room temperature for 30 minutes before finishing.) MELT remaining 2 tablespoons butter and toss with crushed croutons. Sprinkle evenly over the casserole. Bake at 350 degrees for 30 to 35 minutes, until mixture is set and croutons are golden brown. YIELD: 8 to 10 servings.
  • Chiffonade of Beets and Greens From “Mastering the Art of Southern Cooking,” by Nathalie Dupree and Cynthia Graubart (Gibbs Smith, 2012). You don’t have to cook collards for hours. Dupree says she can’t remember how she thought of adding beets to collards, but it works. 2 cups collards, cut in ribbons or preshredded (see note) 2 teaspoons butter or oil 2 cloves garlic, chopped 1 teaspoons minced fresh ginger 1 (16-ounce) can beets, drained and chopped 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice or cider vinegar Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste BRING a pot of water to boil. Add greens and cook 1 minute. Remove from water and drain well. (Skip this boiling step if the greens are very young and tender.) HEAT the butter or oil in a large, heavy skillet. Add the garlic, ginger and blanched greens. Cover and cook a few minutes. Remove lid and stir in the beets and lemon juice or vinegar. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Cook for 1 to 2 minutes. SERVE hot or at room temperature. NOTE: You also could make this with turnip greens, kale or baby beet greens. YIELD: 4 to 6 servings.

After all the fuss and bother of Christmas, New Year’s ought to be simple.

The Southern tradition is to serve humble foods like collard greens and black-eyed peas to ensure luck and prosperity in the coming year. Such basic foods should ensure an easy day of cooking, too.

So why is it so complicated? Walk through supermarkets and there are so many decisions. Dried black-eyed peas or fresh? Fresh collards or frozen?

And would my ancestors rise up and smite me for using anything from a can?

But sometimes shortcuts aren’t a bad thing. Sometimes they’re even the best option.

For instance, fresh sounds best. But fresh black-eyed peas aren’t in season. If you look carefully at the label on “fresh” black-eyed peas in the produce department, they’re actually rehydrated. In my experience, they taste sour and have a gray appearance after they’re cooked.

Nathalie Dupree, the Charleston-based cooking expert who recently finished a monumental new cookbook, “Mastering the Art of Southern Cooking,” with co-author Cynthia Graubart, has an order of preference on field peas:

“Fresh – if someone shelled them. Home-frozen. Commercially frozen. Canned, drained and well-seasoned to mask the canned taste.”

Frozen collards can be acceptable for long-cooking dishes, she said.

“I would do something else rather than use canned collards.”

But there is a great option on collards, said Atlanta-based cookbook author Virginia Willis: Pre-shredded collards.

“I will freely admit that I buy already chopped-up ones,” she said. “I eat greens four or five times a week.”

Triple-washed and chopped, pre-shredded collards cook fast because they’re in smaller pieces. We found Nature’s Greens in the produce section at a Super Wal-Mart, in a 2-pound bag for $3.96. And the bag held at least twice as much as we got after trimming and cutting a 2-pound bundle that cost $1.99 at another supermarket.

Of course, everyone has to decide where to draw the line on convenience. We’re willing to dress up cornbread mix. Is that evil?

“Yes,” Willis declared. “Usually, Jiffy is too sweet. And I like old-fashioned cornbread,” made from stone-ground cornmeal, buttermilk and eggs.

We agreed on this, though: It’s better to take a shortcut than to risk not eating collards and black-eyed peas on New Year’s.

“I missed it once and it was truly the worst year of my life,” said Willis. “I’m never not doing it again.”

Purvis: 704-358-5236

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