Though black-eyed peas have become to New Year's Day what turkey is to Thanksgiving, the uniquely marked field pea is a year-round staple for Southerners. And while they're commonly associated with humble tables — the superstition associated with having them on New Year's Day is that beginning the year with such "humble" fare will bring prosperity — they really know no social, ethnic or economic boundaries.
Most likely, that's because a hearty pot of black-eyed peas is at once the simplest and yet most satisfying thing that one can have on a cold winter's day. Moreover, the ritual of making them is satisfying. Preparing the peas for the pot, sorting, washing and soaking them is relaxing and calming, and as they simmer slowly with their seasonings, the aroma that fills the house warms and comforts the soul.
Food scientists now tell us that there's no reason to presoak field peas, and it's probably true, but I've found that soaking makes the peas more tender. And presoaking means they don't have to cook quite as long, and they stay whole in the end, making the texture oh so much better.
Black-eyed peas are deceptive. They're small, but they pack a lot of healthy power. One-half cup of the cute little peas contains zero fat, but 6 grams of fiber, keeping you full for a longer period of time than some other side dishes. If you're making a weight-loss resolution, let black-eyed peas help you on your journey. That half-cup of peas is also a good source of antioxidants and other helpful nutrients.
The beauty of a pot of beans is that they can be made a day or two ahead. In fact, they're even better the second day or even the third day once the ingredients have had-time to marry, the beans absorbing all those yummy flavors. To make ahead, let them cool, transfer them to a storage container, cover tightly and refrigerate. Reheat them slowly over medium-low heat.
Some people like to serve black-eyed peas over rice, but in many Southern homes, New Year's Day is always celebrated with a pot of greens, black-eyed peas and a crusty cake of skillet cornbread, each slice dripping with butter and honey.
Black-Eyed Peas and Ham
1 pound black-eyed peas
1 thick slice country ham, uncooked
1 large yellow onion, peeled and diced
2-3 cloves garlic, minced
1-2 pepper pods, left whole (optional)
2 bay leaves
1 sprig fresh thyme or 1 teaspoon dried thyme
Salt and pepper, to taste
Spread the peas on a rimmed sheet pan, and pick out any damaged or discolored peas. Put them in a colander, and rinse well under cold running water, tossing gently to make sure they're all rinsed. Transfer them to large enamel-lined or stainless-steel pot, and cover them with about an inch of water. Set them aside until the peas are doubled in size.
Meanwhile, trim the excess fat from a whole, thick slice of uncooked country ham, and cut it into 1/2-inch dice.
When the peas have doubled, add enough water to cover them by 2 inches and put the pot over medium heat. Also bring a teakettle full of water to a boil, and then reduce heat and keep it simmering in case you need to replenish the broth. Never add cold water to the peas. Bring the peas slowly to a simmer, skimming away the thick foam that rises, and simmer until the peas are almost tender. Depending on how old the peas are, this can take 20-45 minutes, but they will undergo further cooking, so don't let them get too soft.
Now, add the ham, onion, garlic and whole pepper pods, if using. Leaving them whole infuses their flavor without releasing too much of their heat. Add bay leaves, thyme, and salt and pepper, to taste. If there isn't much broth, replenish it with boiling water — enough to cover the peas by an inch.
Simmer until the onions and peas are tender and the broth and peas are infused with the seasonings. Discard bay leaves. Serve warm over cooked rice or in a bowl with some cornbread to sop up the savory "gravy."
Makes 6-8 servings.