Monday, May 05, 2008

Resurrecting Hoppin' John, Part 1: Red Cowpeas

One of the classics of Lowcountry cooking is Hoppin' John. As much as I have heard people rave about it, I have to admit that for years I was utterly unimpressed. Most recipes these days say Hoppin' John is a mixture of black-eyed peas and rice. The versions I tried always seemed pretty bad--bland flavor, and a mushy texture. Even efforts to spruce it up a little with sausage or bacon or tomatoes didn't seem to help much. The end result was a gloppy gooey mess that left me wondering, "What were those old Lowcountry folks thinking?"

Now I'm starting to figure it out. It's a problem of ingredients. If you start with plain old white rice and a can of Bush's black-eyed peas, you will end up with Hoppin' Mush. To get the real deal, you need to use the right ingredients.

This entry is dedicated to the first of these ingredients: proper red cowpeas. Wikipedia may lump cowpeas and black-eyed peas in as the same thing, but they really are not. Carolina Plantation now grows classic cowpeas, and you can find them sold in white cotton bags at various grocery stores around town or pick them up online. They'll run you five or six bucks for a two pound bag, but it's worth shelling out for: these peas are nothing like blackeyes.

Red cowpeas are firmer than black-eyed peas and have a richer flavor--the only term I can come up with is "more meaty." Cook some up and you'll see what I mean. I've found there's a fine line when cooking with ordinary dried black-eyed peas: if you don't cook them long enough, they are still crunchy in the middle, which is awful. Cook them too long and they turn to mush. You don't have this problem with red cowpeas. Their texture holds up well, staying firm and chewy even with long, slow cooking.

Here's how I like to cook them:

1. Rinse 1 cup of cowpeas and soak in water for a few hours

2. Bring 3 cups of chicken stock to a boil

3. Add in the following:
  • half a cup of diced onion

  • 1 strip of good bacon, diced

  • the soaked peas

Lower heat and simmer for 45 minutes or an hour, till the beans are tender and the pot liquor is thick and flavorful.

These peas are so delicious you may decide there's no need to ever mix them with anything else. But, stay tuned for part two . . .


Scott said...

I think most folks would be amazed at just how many varieties of peas and beans are out there and what a range of taste and texture you get from each of them.

BETH said...

Hoppin' John is one of those great dishes you can really tailor to your husband (who is the cook in our family) likes to add sauteed green peppers and onions to the mix. Also, if you happen to be cooking a ham, put some of the ham broth in there, too. Yum!
(I am in Jenn's book club, love your blog!)

Anonymous said...

We are not from the low country, but have lived here a long time and have eaten a lot local rice dishes. We make our H.J. using the recipe in Charleston Receipts, which cooks the cow peas separately in salted water (about 20 min.), then assembles the rice, bacon, onion, some b. fat and the peas in a rice steamer with enough of the pea cooking water for the rice.

Tre said...

Red cow peas are the best. I try to eat vegetarian most of the time, so I don't put any meat in my Hoppin John. Instead I add red kidney beans (about half as many kidneys as cow peas.) I also use vidalia onions when I have them - great flavor. Cumin, turmeric, and cayenne pepper are great spices, and I use basmati rice as it has a nice mild nutty flavor - is a nice complement to the cow peas. Great as a base for taco salad!!

lucia said...

Hello to all on the other side of the
Pond . Just had a talk with a West Indian couple cooking food at a food
festival here in Plymouth ,Devon, UK .
Rice & Peas !! Seems she uses Cowpeas.
Which unlike Jamaican recipes using
blackeye beans , were small & red .
Otherwise known as Red Chori . Highly
nutritious and tastier than blackeye .
Have cooked them with Basmati rice ,
garlic , shallot , Scotch Bonnet peppers . Absolutely Scrummy !!

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