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 . . .