Monday, December 31, 2007

The Luck of the Bean

We take the New Year’s meal pretty seriously down here in the South, although this particular tradition is steeped in nothing more than superstition. You know how Thanksgiving means there will be turkeys and cranberry sauce at the dinner table? Yeah, well, we feel the same way about black-eyed peas and collards on New Year's Day.

    My life has changed dramatically in the past few four years. I can easily remember the first few New Year’s Eves that The Carnivore and I celebrated together; those were the better-planned ones, the years in which kissing at midnight still seemed important (and when I could still stay up that late). I can remember the shows we went to, the parties we either hosted or attended, the friends we were with, even some of the outfits that I wore.

      And then (here’s where it gets funny), we decided to start a family. We spent the last evening of 2003 watching television in the thirty-year-old trailer we were living in while we built our house. I was pregnant with The Big Boy, and I fell asleep on the sofa after eating Chinese take-out. The Carnivore woke me up at midnight; I kissed him goodnight and went to bed. Last year I managed to stay awake, and we opened a split of champagne that a client had given me for Christmas a few years earlier. We each choked down a swallow or two, and then I dumped the rest of the bottle down the sink. Like I said, things have changed.

        I had my first traditional Southern New Year’s Day dinner on January 1, 1999, when The Carnivore and I joined some friends out in the middle of nowhere for a dinner party that included, among other things, black-eyed peas and collards. I may have lived in Georgia for most of my life, but, somehow, I was 26 before anyone let me in on the secret that the way to ensure you would be flush in money and luck over the next year was to eat collards and black-eyed peas on New Year’s Day. Oh sure, it’s all a bunch of hooey. But its' fun. And incredibly tasty. Who would I be to argue with a good meal?

          Of course, the friends who hosted that dinner are now divorced. And a new road runs through the property where their house once stood. Depending on peas for luck may not be too good of a bet.

            All else may have changed over the years, but the one thing that has remained constant is our New Year's Day menu. I could care less about traditional meals for all the other holidays, but I won’t budge on this one. For a few years there, we still ate dinner at those same friends’ house. At some point the party moved to our house, and The Carnivore started cooking the meal. And after a while, the torch passed to me. Some years we just winged it, tossing hot sauce and onions into the pots until the taste seemed right to us; other years I’ve followed recipes that weren’t particularly satisfying.

              This year, I’m sticking with the tried-and-true. The Carnivore will make his spicy cornbread (for which we have no recipe). I’ll soak some black-eyed peas tonight, and then simmer them for most of the afternoon tomorrow, adding some sautéed onions and peppers, a pinch or two of smoked chipotle powder (to compensate for the bacon most Hoppin' John recipes call for, which I will obviously be omitting) and whatever hot sauces or other seasonings strike my fancy at the moment. And of course, I’ll make a pot of brown rice too. And though I have a myriad of greens recipes (especially after The Summer of Our CSA, in which we ate greens for nearly every meal for at least a month), I’ll go with my favorite and cook the quick and easy Mediterranean Collards, a recipe that has never failed us.

                MEDITERRANEAN COLLARD GREENS (adapted from an old John Kessler column in the AJC Food Section, serves four as a side dish)

                • 1/4 cup of olive oil
                • Medium red onion, chopped
                • Two cloves of garlic, minced
                • 2 Roma tomatoes, chopped
                • 1 Tbs tomato paste
                • 1/2 cup balsamic vinegar
                • 1/4 cup red wine
                • 1 cup vegetable broth
                • 1 lb fresh collards, chopped
                • 1/2 tsp kosher salt
                • 1/2 tsp coarsely ground black pepper
                1. In a large Dutch oven, heat the olive oil over medium heat.
                2. Add the onion and garlic, and saute until onion is translucent.
                3. Add the tomatoes, tomato paste, balsamic vinegar, red wine, broth and collards.
                4. Cook, covered, for 20-30 minutes, until collards are as soft as you like them (I prefer for mine to still have a little texture).
                5. Season with salt and pepper, and add more vinegar if needed.

                As for luck and money, well, I’m not terribly worried about all that. I’ve got everything I want right here.

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