I was seeking advice for a gumbo I was to bring to a fundraiser cook-off last weekend. I’d wanted it to have lots of densely packed greens, like a traditional gumbo z’herbes, but also seafood, okra and perhaps some bacon. “Why don’t you do something like Hoppin’ John?” my friend Karol, a Southern food expert, suggested. This was one of her famed dishes, and one time, she’d added some greens like spinach to it as a variation. It was really good. I didn’t go so far as to put black-eyed peas in my gumbo that day, but did find a new appreciation for collard greens. And, I had some tasty slab bacon leftover. So I made much Karol’s specialty the following week.
This dish may be neatly billed as soul food — that is, of the Southern USA — but it looks to me like it could have been made by Tuscan peasants or Caribbean islanders just as well. Let’s just stick with the Hoppin’ John moniker for now. This dish is essentially black-eyed peas cooked with vegetables and often, a ham hock or bacon scraps for seasoning. It’s often served with rice or cornbread, along with other vegetable sides as part of a “meat and three.” I’m not sure who John was or why he was hopping, but if you consider that when the saying, “full of beans” is used to describe a person it means he or she is particularly energetic or spirited, maybe every John, Jack and Jane who ate this dish felt like hoppin’ and boppin’ afterward.
I couldn’t get enough of the great bunches of collard greens at Phillips Farms’ stand at Grand Army Plaza’s Greenmarket. Not true purple collard greens, which would have purple stems, these late-season brassicas have just a blush of violet on their outer tips. One might think this would indicate a state of decline for the “greens,” but their crisp, taut leaves told another story. Then I tasted them — superb, with a mild, grassy sweetness.
Nothing says hardship quite like “black-eyed” peas. These beans are a Southern favorite, but they’re so quick-cooking (thanks to their petite size) and versatile, I’m sure I’ll be using up mine in some other fashion soon. Soak them just like any other dried bean (or skip this step if you manage to find fresh ones), and toss them right into the vegetables to cover with water and stew. I began by sauteeing some onions and finely diced carrot, a little garlic, and lardons of bacon. The helpful attendant at Flying Pigs Farm’s stand at the Greenmarket had steered me toward a bag of irregular pieces he called, “bacon ends,” after learning that I was going to chop it up. These were the trimmings of slabs of bacon that had been cut just so, and were perfect for braises or stews. Plus, they were a dollar less per pound than the no-ends bacon, and tasted just as wonderful.
Going back to the universality of this dish, it’s essentially the same thing as spinach daal from India with different seasonings, isn’t it? Beans and hardy greens will surely feed the masses on the cheap, and well.
Hoppin’ John with Collard Greens
(makes 4-6 servings)
1 cup dry black-eyed peas
1 large bunch collard greens, stripped of thick stems and shredded
3-4 oz. slab bacon, finely diced
1 medium onion, diced
1 carrot, finely diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon tomato paste
salt and pepper to taste
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper (or more to taste)
Tabasco sauce to taste
Rinse the black-eyed peas and pick away any shriveled or discolored ones. Cover with at least three inches of water and soak at least 4 hours, or overnight. Drain.
Heat a large, heavy-bottomed pot or Dutch oven and cook the bacon over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until just crispy. Transfer bacon to a bowl. In the same pot, cook the onions and carrots over medium-low heat, adding the tomato paste. Season with salt, pepper and cayenne and add the garlic just softened, about 5-6 minutes. Return the bacon to the pot and add the shredded collard greens. Stir a few minutes until the greens have shrank in size and turned a deeper green. Add the drained beans and fill the pot with just enough water to submerge. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to a simmer and simmer, covered, for 2-3 hours or until beans are very tender. Season with salt and Tabasco sauce to taste, and serve with rice if desired.
(for 4-6 servings)
8 oz / 1 cup black-eyed peas (at $2.50/lb): $1.25
1 large bunch collard greens (from the Greenmarket): $2.75
4 oz. bacon (at $14.75/lb bacon “ends” from Flying Pigs Farm): $3.68
1 medium onion: $0.40
1 carrot (from a bag for $2 at the Greenmarket): $0.25
2 cloves garlic, salt, pepper, Tabasco sauce to taste: $0.50
Four brownie points: You can hop to your good health after eating this dish for dinner a few nights. It’s so satisfying in so many regards — fiber and protein from the beans, dark leafy-green antioxidants and Vitamin K, filling carbohydrates, and a savory taste. You can adjust the amount of bacon you prefer to have (or not use it at all) with this recipe, knowing that this will undoubtedly contribute cholesterol and fat. But when used as a seasoning instead of the main protein, this pork fat is so minimal per portion but stretches a long way in flavor.
Eight maple leaves: For a recipe that has bacon, this dish gets such applause on the green scale for its hearty use of hardy vegetables and beans, and skimpish lot of the aforementioned. It’s a great trick to use small quantities of meat or its fat for flavor, and can also be a great way to use up your own “ends,” “trimmings,” and drippings from meat at home, as well as those from the butcher.