Out with the old and in with the new, or perhaps: Let us put by that which we've outgrown or outworn or simply need no more, and let us take up and celebrate that which brings us learning, growth or most emphatically, peace. And let us remember to cherish what lies between. It can be so dangerously easy to envision only The Old and The New, without consideration for all that copious territory describing the rest of our lives. And most of that doesn't need to be thrown away, or embraced for the sake of its novelty. Most of that wide expanse simply needs to be tended.
Important things for tending: Robins. Beautifully plump red-breasted American robins arrive here every year, but the time of their coming can vary widely. We caught our first glimpse this winter just before Christmas, about December 23. It was a small flock, and they disappeared too quickly to be caught in photographs. Just a few days later, on December 30, the trees were suddenly filled with their voices (which really DO sound oddly like something a Victorian writer might have described as "chirrup-ing"), and their curious explorations on the ground, characterized by a good deal more hopping than flying. So much hopping and interrogation of the ground do they do that they provide excellent subjects for photos. In the photo at the top, here, there's at least one robin, but I defy you to find it. This is partly because I am a woefully inadequate photographer, and partly because I seldom listen to the wisdom of my dear old person on this, even when he stands at my elbow with a much better camera than my phone could ever offer. But it's there. And in spite of the general gloom of the landscape and the date on the calendar, that virtually invisible little bird spans the continuum of The Old and The New with a simple reminder. Spring will come.
As the chilly days wind along and we wait for more immediate proof of the spring for which mid-winter is the harbinger, we observe with familiar markers. Often the markers, the reminders, take the form of food. Here in the south, we mark the arrival and passing of the New Year with a plate like this one. Some people call it Hoppin' John; when I was growing up it was just "peas and rice", and everybody knew the peas in question were black-eyed peas cooked with ham and served over rice. Everybody also knew, or seemed to know, that the foods symbolized something, each with its unique significance. These symbols are lost to me personally; I only know that it's good luck to have this meal on New Year's Day, and that the whole thing turned out especially well this year. I thought I might talk about old and new by sharing the "how" of the cooking here. Standard apologies to my vegetarian friends.
This whole undertaking is made easier if you cooked a ham for Christmas. If you did, you have a ham bone and/or some pieces of ham you can cut up and use to season most of the meal. If you didn't, and you want to approach the meal from a traditional standpoint you'll have to face down the mysteries of ham hocks on your own. Good luck. For our purposes let's assume you DID cook that ham, or that you're adjusting for vegetarianism as you go along. So: there are, in our family, four main components to prepare.
Black-eyed peas must be bought dried and prepared according to package instructions. At my house this means simmered until done with the ham bone, some kosher salt and some Texas Pete.
Cornbread is prepared according to your own lights. At my house, this one has one of the shortcuts I advocate as a cook and a relatively sane person (readers will know that I believe cooks should identify and embrace those shortcuts with which they can live, and should heartily reject those with which they cannot). I use a Martha White cornbread mix shortcut, with the caveat that one cannot add sugar to cornbread. There it is, and I stand by it. Gather ye cornbreads how ye may.
Rice is critically important. In my kitchen we use a half-and-half combination of organic brown and basmati rices, both of which you can get at the grocery store. Simmered together, they fill the kitchen with a delicate aroma that takes its part in the whole of the meal's experience.
Greens are different every time I cook them, but this year they're splendid. I prefer collards for the mild flavor and one of the shortcuts I can abide is the purchase of them pre-cleaned and more or less ready to cook. This year I coated a cast iron skillet with olive oil and added very finely chopped onion, just enough to make a layer in the skillet. As the onion cooked to translucence I added about a teaspoon of kosher salt, a couple of teaspoons of sugar and several dashes of white wine vinegar. I thought something delicate like pear-infused vinegar would have been lovely, but no such luxury lay to hand. I also thought some red pepper would be a good addition. I was out, but in the top of my pantry was a small packet from a local pizza joint, enought for a slice of pizza. Perfect. A quarter cup or so of water de-glazed the skillet and the greens were added slowly to allow them to cook down. A pound of collard greens, when cooked down in a 10-inch cast iron skillet, results in about enough to serve 4 or 5 people, but it takes awhile. This cooked most of the afternoon, and when finished looked more or less like this photo.
Happy New Year and thank you for continuing to return to read, despite the erratic occurence of posts. As 2012 begins, one of my goals is to meet you here more often, for I am grateful to find myself learning and growing with each interaction. For now, peas and rice are on the table. Let's eat.