Hoppin’ John and Johnny Cakes

I love it when a dish comes with a side plate of history.

Hoppin’ John is one of those dishes. In the Deep South, this stew made with black eyed peas is traditionally eaten on New Year’s Day because it is believed to bring good luck throughout the rest of the year.

There are all sorts of rituals that come with this practice, including leaving a coin under the bowl or even in the stew itself, or counting the number of peas to see how many lucky days you will have during the coming year, or leaving three peas in the bowl at the end of the meal — one for luck, one for money and one for love.

Whew! But that’s not all. Hoppin’ John is usually served with brasied collard, turnip or mustard greens because they are the color of money, and with corn bread because it is the color of gold.

Finally, leftover Hoppin’ John is eaten again the following day — only this time it is called Skippin’ Jenny — to show how frugal you are.

The name Hoppin’ John may refer to a legendary character, or it may simply come from the Creole French for black eye peas, “pois pigeons”. No one knows for sure.

Back in the northern states, our food rituals are not nearly as interesting. Johnny cakes are what people from New England used to call corn bread around the time of the Revolutionary War. Because they would stay edible even during a long day’s journey on horseback, with the flat, nasal Yankee accent “journey cakes” became “johnny cakes.”

I may have been a couple of weeks late with this dish, but I hope it brings me luck for the rest of this year!

Hoppin’ John

4 TBS unsalted butter

1 white onion, medium dice

1 green pepper, ribs and seeds removed, medium dice

2 stalks of celery, ribs and leafs included, medium dice

3 cloves garlic, crushed

4 cups dried black eyed peas (soaked 6 hours)

32 oz chicken stock

1/2 lb sausage (any kind, your choice, I used chorizo)

1/2 tsp sea salt

1/4 tsp fresh cracked black pepper

1/2 tsp cayenne pepper

2 TBS red wine vinegar

Rice or bulgur, cooked

1. Soak black eyed peas in cool water for at least 6 hours to soften. Rinse before using.

2. In pot, melt butter then add onions, pepper, and celery and cook until onions translucent, about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally.  Remove sausage from casing, add to pot, break apart and cook until brown, about 7 minutes. Add garlic and cook another minute or two.

3. Add black eyed peas, chicken stock and seasonings and bring to a boil then reduce to a simmer. Cook until most of the liquid is absorbed, about 45 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Serve over rice with braised greens and corn bread on the side. Good luck!

What recipes do you make that come dripping with history? Share your story in the comments section below. And thanks for looking at my blog!

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South Side Grocery Bargains – Week of Sept. 28-Oct 4, 2011

Last week, I wrote about the growing popularity of dollar stores in our struggling economy. This week, I want to follow up on some of the best items to buy at the dollar store:

  • Cleaning products are the backbone of the dollar store business, according to industry experts. Because they buy close out and remnants, dollar stores often have name brands for 60 to 70 percent less than grocery chains.
  • Gift wrap is substantially less expensive at the dollar store. And buy early. National chains, even discount stores, will raise their prices right before the holidays, when consumer demand is highest.
  • Beauty products — including soap, shampoo and conditioners — can be found for less than half the price of other stores. And while you may not find expensive name brands, the quality is the same or better, experts say.
  • Kitchen gadgets are plentiful and at rock bottom prices at dollar stores. Stay away from the cheap-o items, but look for measuring cups, timers, graters and other items that will cost way more at mainstream stores.
  • Halloween candy and other bulk candy can be found for a much better value than the grocery stores. Let your kids pick out their own jumbo sized boxes of candy before taking them to the movies and you will save a fortune.

Speaking of great values, let’s start saving some money!

First, in produce, let me say that although Food 4 Less has cantaloupe on sale 3 for $5, you would have to be a really big fan of this fruit to buy it right now because of the listeria outbreak tied to cantaloupe that already has claimed at least 16 lives. Do yourself a favor and stay away from the cantaloupe for a while.

A better buy at F4L would be cabbage, which is $.25/head. Over at Freshline Foods, Romaine lettuce is $.99/lb. At Cermak Produce, both mangoes and avocados are $.59/each, so it’s a great time to make Mango Walnut Guacamole. Fresh Pick Market has iceberg lettuce for $.59/head, a pretty good price, and bananas for $.29/lb, a great price.

Tony’s Finer Foods has collard, mustard and turnip greens for only $.59/lb, which is perfect for these soul food specialties. Tony’s also still has sweet corn for $.25/ear, but it has to be the last local corn of the season, so hurry!

Speaking of the season ending, vendors at area Farmer’s Markets tell me next week or the week after will be the last until the spring, so make it count!

In the meat departmentreports that meat prices would be increasing are starting to be felt. Prices are up across the board. The best value I found was at Ultra Foods, where whole chickens are available for $.58/lb. At Jewel’s, chicken leg quarters are $.39/lb, but you have to buy a 10 lb bag. Who has room for that?! And Tony’s has ground beef for $1.88/lb if you buy 5 lbs or more, which is better than most places but still a bit pricey for me.

In the grocery aisle,  there are a couple of deals to get excited about. Jewel’s has their house brand pasta for $.88/lb. Pair that with the 24 oz house brand pasta sauce available at Freshline Foods for $1 and you’ve got dinner for 4 for $1.88. Not bad. Get a jump on holiday baking by picking up a 5 lb bag of unbleached all purpose flour for only $1.88 at Tony’s.

In the frozen section, Ultra Foods has Bird’s Eye vegetables for $.78/lb. And Tony’s has Palermo’s 12″ frozen pizzas for $1.83/each, although I can’t vouch for quality because I’ve never tried this brand. Might be good if you have onmiverous teenagers, though.

This week’s Bargain of the Week is at Ultra Foods, where an 8 lb bag of Idaho potatoes is only $.98. That’s only $.12/lb. You can’t afford not to buy at that price!

Have you found any great bargains out there? Why not share them in the comments section below? See you at the grocery store!

Budget Cooking – Soul Food

Back in the late 1980s, when I was working as a rewrite man in a downtown newsroom, I loved to take my lunch break at a restaurant near State and Lake called “Soul Food by the Pound.”

The concept was unique: The customer walked through a cafeteria line and piled whatever he or she wanted onto a plate,  then the whole tray would be weighed and the customer would pay a set price, about $3.99/pound as I recall. Only years later did I realize we must have been paying for the tray and plate every time.

Despite the eccentricity of the concept, this experience was the beginning of my love affair with soul food.

As press secretary for Cook County State’s Attorney Cecil Partee in the early 1990s, the campaign trail would often bring us to Army and Lou’s and other legendary Chicago soul food  restaurants.

Later, when I was in culinary school, one of my favorite source cook books was by Sylvia Woods, the “Queen of Soul Food” and owner of Sylvia’s Restaurant, in Harlem, New York. Long before “Julie and Julia”, “Dan and Sylvia” were cooking our way through the recipes in that amazing book.

For the most part, no one will mistake soul food with health food. Much of its lushness
is attributed to ample amounts of fat and salt. That’s a huge part of the pleasure of the experience.

But there are healthy variations of this amazing food genre.

For example, I love braised greens. They are rich in iron and other vitamins, not to mention delicious. They are a staple of many cuisines around the world. For example, in Greek cooking, they are served with almost every meal, drizzled with a little lemon juice.

Braising Kale with Salt Pork

Braising Kale with Salt Pork

This recipe I stole from Sylvia and have been incorporating into my menus for years. Each kind of green has a separate and distinct flavor – mustard greens have a distinctive tanginess, collard greens and kale tend to be smoother, and dandelion greens are pleasantly bitter — but they are all amazing.

Braised Greens

1-2 lb greens (kale, mustard, collard or dandelion)

2 chunks (about 2 oz) fat back (or salt pork, or bacon, or whatever fat you have)

1 clove garlic, punched

1/2 cup chicken stock

Salt and pepper to taste

Remove thick ribs from greens and discard. Wash your greens in cold water at least twice. Most greens are grown in sandy soil, so you want to remove any and all grit.

In a large, lidded pot, render fat back, salt pork or bacon by cooking slowly over a medium to low heat to extract as much fat as possible without burning. Add the punch of garlic (smashed once, but still intact to add subtle flavor), then slowly add greens, a handful at a time, turning with a tongs.

The hot oil will cause the greens to collapse. When they are nearly all limp, stir in the chicken stock and cover, leaving a little space for some steam to escape. Cook over a medium low heat until the bright color of the greens washes out to a dark green color and they start to fall apart to the touch, about 25 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

To serve, lift greens from pot with a tongs and hold over the pot for a moment so excess liquid drains. This prevents pooling on the plate.

Another soul food staple – macaroni and cheese – is the ultimate comfort food. I don’t even pretend to make this one healthy, I just eat it in moderation.

Doesnt' that look amazing?

Doesnt' that look amazing?

In restaurants over the years, I’ve made a lot of fancy variations of macaroni and cheese, with everything from super sharp cave-aged cheddar to buttery gorgonzola to pungent gruyere. But nothing beats this traditional, and inexpensive, recipe for the world’s coziest comfort food.

Macaroni and Cheese

For the Bread Crumb Topping:

2/3 cup bread crumbs

1-1/2 TBS unsalted butter, cut into chunks

For the Pasta:

½ lb elbow macaroni

2-1/2 TBS unsalted butter

4 TBS unbleached all-purpose flour

1 tsp yellow mustard

Pinch cayenne pepper

2-1/2 cups skim milk

4 oz Monterey Jack cheese, shredded

4 oz Sharp Cheddar cheese, shredded

Salt and pepper to taste

For the bread crumbs: Combine the butter and bread crumbs in bowl. Rub the mix between your thumbs and forefingers until it forms an even meal. Set aside.

For the Pasta: Preheat oven to 375F. Bring 4 quarts salted water to boil in large pot with cover. Stir in macaroni, cook until done, about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Drain in colander (don’t rinse) and set aside.

Building a roux

Building a roux

In same pot, add the 2-1/2 TBS butter and melt until foaming. Whisk in flour and cayenne to form a roux, stirring frequently so it doesn’t burn. Cook out the flour taste, about 2 minutes.  Meanwhile, whisk the mustard into the milk. Slowly add the milk to the roux, whisking constantly to break up clumps. Bring to boil. As it boils, the roux will cause the milk to thicken into the consistency of heavy cream. This is awesome and takes about 5 minutes.

Once it’s reached the proper consistency, turn off the flame. Fold in the cheese until melted, then the macaroni. Transfer the mixture to a baking dish. Sprinkle the bread crumbs evenly over the top, then bake uncovered for about 25 minutes, or until the bread crumbs turn a golden brown.

Remove, let cool for a minute or two and serve. You are now in soul food heaven. Serves 6-8. This cost about $4.25 to make, so the cost per person is $.53 to $.70/person.

Grilled Double Cut Pork Chop with Braised Kale and Macaroni & Cheese

Grilled Double Cut Pork Chop with Braised Kale and Macaroni & Cheese