Serves 4 as a main dish, 6 as a side dish
Give southern storytellers a name like hoppin' John and they'll spin yarns about it until hogs howl at the moon. The truth seems more prosaic than all the colorful tales, probably being a substitution of similar-sounding English words for a generic, foreign name for the dish, not a reference to a street vendor with a limp, or a description of children dancing one-footed around the dinner table on New Year's Day. Beyond any doubt, black slaves introduced the famous "pea" pilau on the rice plantations of the South Carolina low country, and it's closely related to common African and West Indian concoctions. Carolina cooks put their stamp on Hoppin' John through local ingredients, particularly the field peas, seasonings, and pork. Many people treat it as a side dish, but we like it on the center of the plate, accompanied by a summer salad or winter soup, and we keep the preparation simple to focus on the earthy elegance of the combination.
1 cup dried black-eyed peas, red field peas,
or other small dried peas
1 medium onion, chopped fine
1 small smoked ham hock,
sliced in chunks by the butcher
1 small dried hot red chile
or pinch or two of cayenne pepper
1 teaspoon salt
Freshly milled black pepper
Sprig of fresh thyme
or 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme, optional
1 cup uncooked rice (see Ingredient Tip)
Hot pepper sauce, such as Tabasco,
or hot pepper vinegar
Combine the black-eyed peas with 6 cups of water in a large saucepan. Add the onion, ham hock, chile, salt, a good grinding of pepper and, if you wish, the thyme. Bring to a boil over high heat, reduce the heat to a simmer; and cook until the peas are soft but not mushy, about 1-1/2 hours.
Drain the cooking liquid from the peas into a large measuring cup. You will need 2 cups of liquid to cook the rice. Discard any extra liquid or, if necessary, add hot water to equal 2 cups.
Pour the liquid back into the peas. Add the rice to the pot, give it a quick stir; then cover and cook over low heat for 20 minutes. Without lifting the lid, set the hoppin' John aside to steam for 10 to 15 additional minutes. Fluff the mixture and serve immediately with hot pepper sauce or pepper vinegar.
Ingredient Tip: Traditional hoppin' John recipes always call for long-grain rice, the type grown originally in the lowcountry. We generally use nutty-scented Texmati rice (also marketed as wild pecan rice or popcorn rice because of its aroma), though many southern cooks prefer Indian basmati rice. If you buy rice in bulk at a natural foods market, as we do, make sure the proprietors store it properly and replace it frequently. If the rice lacks fragrance, shop for it elsewhere.
Technique Tip: Cooks fine-tune hoppin' John in multiple ways, using salt pork instead of a ham hock, replacing the water with chicken stock, or adding aromatics such as garlic, bay, or mint. When they trade the field peas for okra, another African vegetable, and substitute bacon for other kinds of pork fat, the pilau becomes a lesser-known cousin called "limpin' Susan."
Anyone avaricious for knowledge about hoppin' John and other low country pilaus should check out The Carolina Rice Kitchen (1992) by culinary historian Karen Hess, who covers the subject in doctoral-dissertation detail. John Thorne also writes extensively (and much more readably) about hoppin' John in "Rice & Beans; The Itinerary of a Dish," a pamphlet he reprinted in Serious Pig (1996). The two authors don't always agree, but both know their beans.
American Home Cooking
400 Spirited Recipes Celebrating
Our Rich Traditions of Home Cooking
By Cheryl Alters Jamison and Bill Jamison
Published by Broadway Books; October 1999
Hardback, $30.00, 544 pages
Recipe Reprinted by permission.
American Home Cooking
This page created December 1999