Black-eyed peas are New Year's tradition

December 29, 1993|By Steven Raichlen | Steven Raichlen,Los Angeles Times Syndicate

In our ever expanding quest for new flavors, American cooks are rediscovering foods that have long passed out of fashion. xTC Consider the black-eyed pea. Once a plantation staple, black-eyed peas were consumed for most of this century in poor homes and at humble soul food eateries. Civilized folk spurned them, unless they happened to live in the South, where hoppin' John (black-eyed peas and rice) is a traditional New Year's dish for haves and have-nots alike.

Today, black-eyed peas have gone haute, making star appearances at trendy restaurants from Malibu to Manhattan. Thumb through the latest cookbooks and you'll find chicken pockets with goat cheese, chorizo and black-eyed peas (found in Emeril Lagasse's new book, "Emeril's New New Orleans Cooking") or braised celery with black-eyed peas (found in "Faye Levy's International Vegetable Cookbook").

I say it's high time to rehabilitate this handsome Southern legume. The cream-colored pea is one of my favorite beans, possessing a rich, earthy flavor that is pungent, aromatic and nutty. A thin, black line with an oval in the middle runs along one side of the bean, creating the namesake eye.

Actually, black-eyed pea is just one of a myriad of names for this Southern favorite. Other names include cowpeas, field peas, Jerusalem peas, pea beans, marble beans, China beans, Tonkin peas and black-eyed suzies.

Black-eyed peas are believed to have originated in China. Spice traders brought them to India and Africa, where they remain much beloved to this day. According to food historian Waverley Root, black-eyed peas arrived in the New World in 1674, brought here by African slaves. Thomas Jefferson cultivated them at Monticello. By the mid-18th century, black-eyed peas were firmly established in the plantation diet.

I'm not sure how black-eyed peas came to be associated with good luck on New Year's. Whatever the story, many Southerners believe it would be heresy to let New Year's day go by without eating hoppin' John or some other black-eyed pea dish.

Black-eyed peas are most widely available dried. Spread them on a baking sheet and pick through them to remove any twigs or pebbles. Thoroughly rinse the beans in a colander. To speed up the cooking time, I like to soak black-eyed peas in cold water to cover by 2 inches for at least 4 hours. Drain the peas and transfer them to a large, heavy pan with at least 2 inches water to cover. Briskly simmer the peas, covered, for 30 minutes or until tender but not soft. (To test for doneness, squeeze a pea between your thumb and forefinger. It should flatten easily.)

For extra flavor, you can cook the peas with onions, garlic, fresh or dried herbs, or -- as is de rigueur in the South -- a ham hock. Don't add salt, wine or vinegar, until the peas are almost cooked, or the skins will become tough.

I'm not much of a fan of canned black-eyed peas (they're too soft and too salty), but there's a great new time-saving product on the market: rehydrated black-eyes. These presoaked peas require only 10 to 15 minutes of cooking. Look for them in the produce section of the supermarket.

Black-eyed peas are a mainstay in South American cooking and they turn up throughout the Caribbean and Latin America. Their rich, earthy flavor makes them ideal for salads and fritters. Below is a recipe for Cuban black-eyed pea fritters that are popular in South Florida. I can't guarantee that they'll bring you good luck, but I can vouch that they'll disappear quickly when you serve them.

I first tasted these fritters at a streetside fry shop in Key West. Made from ground black-eyed peas, they resemble a famous Brazilian fritter called "acaraje."

Black-eyed pea fritters

Makes about 40 fritters

1 cup dried black-eyed peas

8 to 10 cloves garlic

1 very small onion, quartered

1/2 Scotch bonnet chili or 1 to 2 jalapeno chilies, seeded and minced (for even spicier fritters leave the seeds in)

3 tablespoons minced fresh cilantro or Italian (flat-leaf) parsley

2 eggs

salt, freshly ground black pepper

1/2 teaspoon baking powder

about 2 cups oil for frying

Soak peas in bowl in cold water to cover at least 4 hours, preferably overnight. If using rehydrated black-eyed peas, omit this step.

Next day, drain peas in colander. Place peas, garlic, onion and chilies in food processor and grind to smooth paste. You'll need to run machine several minutes, stopping to scrape down sides of bowl several times with spatula. Add cilantro, eggs and plenty of salt and pepper. Puree again to smooth paste, 2 to 3 minutes. Transfer batter to bowl and let rest, covered, 30 minutes.

Beat baking powder into batter with wooden spoon. Continue beating batter 1 to 2 minutes. This incorporates air, which helps make fritters light.

Just before serving, in small electric or regular skillet, pour in oil to depth of at least 1 inch and heat to 350 degrees. Using 2 spoons, drop 1-inch balls of batter into oil. Fry, turning with slotted spoon or wire skimmer, until golden brown, about 2 minutes. Work in several batches to avoid crowding pan.

Using slotted spoon, transfer fritters to paper towels to drain. Arrange fritters on platter lined with doily and serve at once.

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