Thursday, December 31, 2009

A Southern New Year's Day Feast

Growing up, Mama always served black-eyed peas, stewed tomatoes, and turnip greens on New Year’s Day. Now, I can honestly say, I really didn’t like the menu as a kid, but now I love to make it and tell my kids the reasons for serving each of the traditional foods. For years, I thought we had to eat these dishes just because Mama said so, but the foods eaten on New Year’s Day were chosen generations ago as symbols of good luck and prosperity. Superstitious? Yes, and steeped in Southern tradition. Delicious? Absolutely, so get cookin’ and dig in!

Black-Eyed Peas...For many years, black-eyed peas have been eaten on New Year’s Day in hopes of bringing good luck in the coming year. Many cultures eat black-eyed peas on New Year’s Day and even the ancient Babylonians ate the dried legumes hoping for good luck. When Sephardi Jews came to Georgia in the 1730s, they brought with them the practice of eating black-eyed peas on New Year’s Day. And, by the time of the Civil War, many non-Jews were eating black-eyed peas on New Year’s Day, as well, hoping for better times. Black-eyed peas are traditionally cooked with ham or salt pork, as the hog symbolizes prosperity. Nowadays, we still cook the black-eyed peas with ham or the ham hock because (many times) we have it left over from our Christmas meal.

Rice...Rice-growing in the U.S. began in the South in the late 17th century. A ship's captain from Madagascar gave a Charleston farmer rice seeds that flourished in the South Carolina lowcountry's swampy soil. The "Carolina Gold" rice proved to be a cash crop for struggling farmers and built wealth for the region. Rice symbolizes wealth and black-eyed peas bring good luck, so eating Hoppin’ John on New Year’s Day should “fare ye well” in the new year. Hoppin’ John is an inexpensive dish to prepare and is a lovely Leftover Makeover for your Christmas ham and cooked rice. You can use canned black-eyed peas in this dish, but soaking your dried peas overnight and then cooking them with the ham hock will save you money and create a more flavorful dish.

Stewed Tomatoes...I have no idea why stewed tomatoes are served on New Year’s Day. When I tried to research and find the reason for this dish to be eaten on New Year’s, I couldn’t find one. I suppose it’s because tomatoes have such an abundant yield in the summer that most people canned their own tomatoes to preserve them for winter eating. And, on January 1st, there would (most likely) still be plenty jars of tomatoes in the pantry. My grandmothers made this sweet dish very simply, cooking 1 quart of tomatoes slowly with sugar, butter, salt & pepper. Then, they would add chunks of bread at the end to soak up that delicious sauce and thicken the dish making what my family calls “stewed tomatoes.”

Greens...Greens of any kind are thought to bring good luck and prosperity because the leaves represent paper currency. In many parts of the world, cabbage is a New Year’s Day food since this leafy vegetable is in season. But, I grew up eating turnip greens on New Year’s Day. Turnip greens are the leaves that grow on the turnip plant as the root vegetable grows underground. They were prepared very similarly to the black-eyed peas, being boiled with ham hock. Turnip greens, collard greens, and kale are plentiful and inexpensive this time of year, so they are a natural choice for New Year’s Day. Plus, eating them is believed to bring wealth, as they symbolize money. So, why not start the year with a little bit of green?

When my New Year’s Day plate is full of Hoppin’ John, stewed tomatoes, and turnip greens with a side of cornbread, that says good luck and prosperity to me. May 2010 bring you the blessings of health and wealth with good eating, too!

Hoppin’ John

1/2 lb. dried black-eyed peas
1 T. olive oil
1/2 medium onion, chopped
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 small ham hock (or 1/2 c. chopped country ham)
1 qt. water
4 c. cooked rice
1 T. fresh chopped parsley
1 T. chopped ham (for garnish)

Cover the beans with cold water and let them soak overnight.
In a large pot over medium heat, add the olive oil, onion, garlic, and ham hock. Cook until the onions are transparent, about 5 minutes. Add the soaked peas and the water; cook, covered, until the peas are tender, about 30 minutes. Remove the ham hock and strain mixture, reserving cooking water for another use. Return cooked peas to pot and fold in the cooked rice. Salt and pepper to taste. (Do not add salt to beans while cooking, as they will be tough.) Stir in parsley and top with chopped ham. Serve with hot sauce.

Stewed Tomatoes

1 (28-oz) can whole, peeled tomatoes
1/4 c. sugar
4-5 slices of stale bread
salt & pepper to taste

Drain the tomatoes, reserving the liquid. Hand crush the tomatoes into a large saucepan. Add the sugar and the reserved liquid. Cook over medium low heat, stirring occasionally and being careful not to let it burn, for about 20 minutes. Add salt and pepper to taste. Tear the bread into chunks and drop into tomato mixture, stirring well until most of the liquid is absorbed by the bread. Remove from heat and serve.

Turnip Greens

2 T. olive oil
1 ham hock (or 1 lb. smoked salt pork, cut into chunks)
1 medium onion, finely chopped
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 qt. vegetable stock
1/2 t. red pepper flakes, crushed
1/2 t. salt
2 T white vinegar
2 lbs. fresh turnip greens, washed, stems removed and roughly chopped (or your favorite winter greens)
dash of ground nutmeg

Heat the olive oil in a large pot over medium-high heat. Add the ham hock (or salt pork) and brown on all sides, about 6 minutes. Add the onion and garlic and cook, stirring frequently, until onion is translucent, about 5 minutes. Stir in the broth and next 3 ingredients scraping the brown bits off the bottom of the pot; add the turnip greens and stir to combine. Bring to a boil; reduce heat, cover, and simmer until greens are tender, about 40 minutes. Remove the ham hock (or salt pork) and add a dash of ground nutmeg. Stir well and cook 3 minutes more. Serve with cornbread.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Leftover Makeover for Cranberry Orange Chicken

The week before Christmas week is always the busiest week of the year for me. There's shopping to do, gifts to wrap, cookies to bake, friends to visit, family to see, mantles to decorate, trees to trim, on and on. All this is in addition to my normal life of schlepping kids wherever they need to go, overseeing homework, keeping the house tidy, taming the laundry beast, and cooking for my family. The secret to a successful Christmas is to plan and organize. Santa's not the only one who needs a list to get through the season. I need quite a few lists, actually.
I make a menu plan each week, but special attention was given to this particular week because I didn't want to spend much time preparing supper each night. So, this is the perfect week for Leftover Makeovers. First, I cooked a fun Cranberry Orange Chicken in the slow cooker. I made sure I had plenty chicken, rice and broccoli left over, so I could throw together the Chicken Fried Rice later in the week. I included butternut squash and broccoli in the dish because those veggies are in season now and, therefore, plentiful, fresh, and less expensive. But, you could use carrots, peas, green beans, or your family's favorite veggies as a substitute. Chicken Fried Rice is a recipe that I never make from "scratch" on the night I serve it. In other words, it is always made with leftovers. The trick is that I plan to have the leftovers.
This recipe calls for 2 cups of cooked diced chicken. That chicken could come from a roast, a rotisserie deli chicken, grilled chicken breasts, or baked chicken parts. As long as you have 2 cups, you'll be fine. In fact, if you'd prefer to decrease or omit the meat altogether, you can. Just increase the substantial veggies. You want approximately 6 cups of rice, veggies, and/or meat (all combined) to create the right consistency for fried rice.
Try this Leftover Makeover by cooking your rice, broccoli, butternut squash, and chicken early in the week for other meals, then toss together the leftovers for this easy and filling one-dish meal.

Chicken Fried Rice

2 T peanut oil
1 c. butternut squash, diced
1/2 c. red pepper, diced
1/4 c. onion, chopped
1 c. broccoli, steamed & chopped
2 c. cooked, diced chicken
2 c. cooked, cold rice
1 egg, beaten
3 T soy sauce
1 T sesame oil
1/4 t. salt
black pepper to taste
chopped green onion, optional
toasted sesame seeds, optional

Heat peanut oil in wok (or large skillet) over medium heat. Saute butternut squash, red pepper, and onion until squash is nearly tender. Reduce to medium and add broccoli and chicken, heating through. Stir in rice. Make a well in rice mixture, add egg and scramble. Stir scrambled egg into rice mixture. Add soy sauce and sesame oil, stirring well. Add salt and pepper to taste. Top with chopped green onion and toasted sesame seeds, if desired.

*note* You can use a variety of cooked meats in this recipe, if desired. Slivered ham, sliced cooked beef, cooked shrimp, sliced cooked pork all work well as a substitution for the chicken. Or create a veggie meal by substituting the meat for chopped cooked cabbage.

Cranberry Orange Chicken

2 1/2 to 3 lbs boneless, skinless chicken thighs and/or breasts
8 oz. whole cranberry sauce
2/3 c. Orange marmalade
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 envelope dry onion soup mix
1/4 c. flour

Mix cranberry sauce and remaining ingredients. Pour sauce evenly over chicken in slow cooker. Don’t stir. Cover and cook on low for 3 to 5 hours, or until chicken is cooked through. Serve chicken with steamed broccoli and rice topped with the sauce.