New Year’s Day tradition: Hoppin’ John

Picking through blackeyed peas

Picking through black eyed peas

Even though I love it, it’s not a dish I make and eat every single New Year’s Day. But probably more often than not there’s a pot of hoppin’ John on my stove the first day of the year. Said to be a step in the direction of starting your year off right, there are many theories as to the origin of both the name and the good luck tradition. I’ll share my favorite of each and leave further research for you if you’re so inclined.

“Pwaah-peejon.”

For the nonsensical name I’ll cite my favorite book of food essays, Serious Pig, by John Thorne with Matt Lewis Thorne. The authors list several possibilities and the one which rings truest is a reference to a relative of the black eyed pea, the pigeon pea:

…”hoppin’ John” is a corruption of pois à pigeon (especially if the à is elided in the Creole manner to make pois pigeon [pwaah-peejon]).

So fun to say! “Pwaah-peejon.” And, to my ear, so easy to hear “hoppin’ John.”  “Pwaah-peejon.”

Next: why is hoppin’ John thought to be a fortuitous New Year’s Day dish?  Well…I don’t know how it came to be associated with New Year’s (and I’m not looking it up again, I’ve already barely made it back from two related deep dives). As to the dish’s overall consideration of being lucky, I have a little more. It begins with the borderline arbitrary symbolism of peas as coins (really?) and collard greens representing dollar dollar bills, y’all. But the explanation I prefer has almost as much to do with how it came to me as the explanation itself.

Enter Coy LeBeau

One beautiful sunny day in Key West, after waiting tables at lunch I was in a dark bar drinking whiskey with friend, coworker, and chef Coy LeBeau. Coy and I shared a deep love for New Orleans (Coy was born in Baton Rouge; I visited NOLA often and even lived there for a minute), and we also were passionate about food, about the same kinds of music, and about drink of almost any type.

Coy and I were natural after work drinking buddies.

On this particular day he was teaching a class about Hank Williams, my tuition for which was five dollars, remitted to the jukebox. As an unrelated bonus (a lagniappe, perhaps?) Coy related to me, in his Louisiana drawl, how the black eyed pea came to be regarded as lucky: when General Sherman was conducting “total war” during his march to Atlanta, the only agricultural survivors of the Union army’s scorched earth policy were the low-to-the-ground sprouts of field peas.

Sounds good to me, and is way more interesting than coins and folding money. Thank you Coy LeBeau.

Disclaimer

Since it’s a dish I make on average less than once a year, I won’t pretend to have the definitive recipe. In fact, I won’t even pretend to have a recipe. And unlike the directions for a few recipes I’ve read recently (including this one, which has some insights I like), I don’t think I’ve ever cooked the rice in with the beans.

Below is my off-the-cuff preparation for hoppin’ John. If you happen to be reading this and are wondering why I didn’t give any pre-New Year’s Day advance notice, it’s because we gave away black eyed peas at our New Year’s Eve pop-up cafe and I didn’t want to put this dish even remotely on any of our guests’ radar, i.e. I wanted it to be a total surprise. Because I’m sure they (and thousands of others) refresh their browsers obsessively – like Jesse Eisenberg in the closing scene of Social Network – to see if there are any new posts on this website.

Here’s how I would cook hoppin’ John

Pick through your beans and make sure there’s no detritus (usually in the form of small stones). If you’re in possession of beans from our New Year’s Eve pop-up, Katy has already picked through your beans (and discarded the dozen or so stones she found – thank you!).

Soak your black eyed peas overnight.

In a quality saucepan, pot, or dutch oven, render the fat from one strip of bacon (or skip this and just use a little olive oil). Remove the bacon and eat it (or chop up and reserve to sprinkle on top of finished dish). In the bacon fat saute a small diced onion until soft and translucent.

Drain and rinse the beans and add to the onion in the pot. Add water until it covers the beans by an inch or two. Add two large pinches of salt. (I salt my beans as early as possible. Controversial, given that most chefs call for salting beans when they’re finished cooking. I dimly recall a Cook’s Illustrated recipe in which the beans are soaked in salted water. My instinct says the earlier you can add salt to something, the better.) Add a sprig of thyme, or a bay leaf, or both. Maybe a pinch of dried red pepper flakes.

Gently simmer the beans until they’re soft but not mushy. If the pot appears to be getting dry, add a little more water, the entire mixture should always be on the coherent side.

Serve over rice with cooked collard greens on top or separately, Crystal hot sauce (or Tobasco) on the side.

One pot variation #1

The one variation I’ll mention here is that when the beans are still pretty firm and have about a half hour to go, I might stir raw chopped collard greens into the simmering mixture instead of cooking them separately.

One pot variation #2

Because I’m interested in cleaning as few pots as possible – especially if the results are actually better – I’m interested in cooking the rice along with the beans, I’ve just never done it before. According to Serious Pig I would need to eyeball that there’s about 2 1/2 cups of water remaining for one cup of raw rice, then cook it all together for about 20 minutes more. They add the rice after the beans are done (soft but not mushy). This seems a little late to me (the beans would be overcooked by the end) but as I’ve said, I’ve not tried it.

Remember!

Cooking is not an exact science. Have fun with your hoppin’ John, and Happy New Year!

 

5 reasons why you should attend a pop-up

pop-up tableWhat is a pop-up café?

Our Blank Plate Boulder pop-up cafés are one-off events that take place in different locations, each with a unique theme and personnel. One month we’re in a lush South Boulder backyard eating brisket tacos, the next we’re on a rooftop deck in Nederland talking about chanterelles.

Better question: why should you attend?

I could ramble on about the different reasons we love pop-up cafés but for the moment I’ll distill it into five. Only the fifth one is from our perspective, i.e. why we love putting them on; the other four are guest-oriented and gleaned during my ten years in the restaurant business.

5. Creative expression.

We keep things fresh by choosing a different theme each month. As well as allowing us to showcase emerging and established talent in Boulder County, this keeps us engaged and inspired, which in turn keeps things fresh. And even though as of this writing we’ve done eight dinners, we haven’t scratched the surface of the many ideas we want to execute — new ones keep…popping up.

 

4. Your “tab” is settled way ahead of time.

My friend Neal and I worked together in a place called Becco on Restaurant Row in NYC’s theater district. It was his first management position and my first bartending gig and we became fast friends over many afterwork beers. While fantasizing about the restaurants we would open (the national pastime of service industry professionals), we were fanatical about one thing: we would figure out a way for guests’ checks to be settled ahead of time. Too often we witnessed lovely dinners devolve into uncomfortable conversations about who owed what. After one perfect meal we experienced it ourselves, witnessing a particularly nasty exchange between two members of our party of 12.

Prepayment wasn’t a motivating factor in putting on pop-up cafes but it’s a pretty sweet side effect of the format. By reserving online for the all-inclusive event beforehand, the sometimes unpleasant financial exchange is already taken care of.

 

3. POW!  Decision fatigue eliminated. 

There’s only one decision, and that’s to reserve a seat. (And then, of course, what to wear.) After that it’s pure relaxation — our hope is that by making the decisions about how the night will unfold, we’ll facilitate an experience for you, our guest, of letting go.

In the hospitality field, creating an experience is the greatest service we can offer our guests.

In my night job as a server in a restaurant, several times every night I witness the anguish of someone trying to decide what to order. The decision is so stressful that the indecider often will postpone main course selection by ordering an appetizer. He or she doesn’t seem to realize that the anguish is only staved off for a few minutes. I’ve been that indecisive orderer and the only thing that was accomplished by agonizing over these decisions was that my meal wasn’t as enjoyable as it might have been otherwise.

There’s another aspect to this situation that took me years to realize: When you look at a menu, you’re looking at words on a page. That’s it. These words are often only vaguely evocative of the food they represent. If you think I’m a little off base you can do a simple experiment: Go to any food establishment where you’re not familiar with the offerings, choose an item from the menu, and imagine in detail the way that dish will look, smell, and taste. Order it and then compare your imagined dish to the way it actually looks, smells, and tastes once it’s in front of you.

Lately, one of my favorite practices as a server is to get the menus away from guests before they order – ideally before they start looking at the menu, before they’ve formed any attachments to the words. Not everyone wants to dine this way, and that’s totally okay. They have to be the right people in the right frame of mind. Sometimes that’s a table ready for a five or six course dining experience; other times it’s a couple who are so engrossed in conversation that the best way for them to enjoy each others’ company is to relinquish the responsibility of making decisions as soon as possible. As a server there are fewer things more uncomfortable and less rewarding than needing to repeatedly interrupt two people totally engrossed in conversation. That’s why they’re there! To enjoy each other’s company! The other night I convinced such a couple to hand over their menus; the next time we spoke was three courses later when I needed to gauge their hunger level. (Just enough room for dessert. There’s almost always enough room for dessert 🙂 )

When you reserve a seat for one of our pop-up cafes your decision making is finished. Savor your liberation!

 

2. You meet new, like-minded people.

Just as not everyone wants to relinquish decision-making control, not everyone wants to sign up for a dinner for which they only receive limited information – there are no Yelp reviews of our dinners (although we were featured in Boulder Weekly). Our hope at Blank Plate is that the type of person who comes to our events is community oriented, is interested in breaking bread with others, and is someone who cares about what she or he is eating. For this person eating food is not solely for fuel; the biological necessity of eating is a happy excuse for ritual, whether it’s messing around in the kitchen or meeting up with friends.

We love food rituals; my favorite new one takes place the day of each of our pop-ups. Eva arrives midday at our location bringing fresh flowers, other important last minute items, her let’s-get-it-done-attitude, and, most importantly, burritos from Chipotle (with many containers of hot sauce). We take a few moments to eat and chat before getting back to preparing for the arrival of our guests. It’s usually the only quiet moment of our day.

If that ritualistic aspect resonates with you in any way then my guess is that you’d probably enjoy attending a pop-up dinner — other guests feel that way too.

 

1. It’s an ADVENTURE.

Our first two pop-ups took place last year and our guests clearly loved them. It was exciting, and yet I didn’t understand the experience the way they did. I felt a need to see a pop-up from a guest’s perspective so in March I went to a pop-up in Denver called Silver Spork Social.

It was so fun! The attendees all met at a coffee shop and we were led to the dinner location. During the walk there I realized the interesting, slightly bizarre level of trust that was taking place. I didn’t know anything about Paul, the organizer, or anyone else present, yet I was pretty certain we weren’t going to a fast food restaurant; I also was pretty certain we weren’t headed to an orgy or a drug den. Those assumptions were correct and we were treated to a fantastic five course meal. I was so relaxed that I didn’t even care that I was spoonless for a minute during a soup course.

 

Wrapping up…

The like-minded people, the all-inclusive prepayment, and the lack of need to make any decisions are pleasant byproducts of the pop-up framework. The best part of attending a pop-up is knowing a minimum about what you’re soon to experience.

Try one sometime.

 

Join us at our next pop-up, this Saturday, October 21st

 

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Chef Katy Anne: Brisket-pursed green goddess

Sous chef Kat, chef groupie Ian, and Chef Katy Anne

Sous chef Kat, chef groupie Ian, and Chef Katy Anne

At the end of our June pop-up I was letting our diners know that I would be sending out the recipe I used for the homemade tonic we served that night. My pushy friend Laura was among the attendees and called out “Forget the tonic, I want that green goddess recipe!” or something to that effect. As she once said to me years ago while we were working together, the squeaky wheel gets the grease. So I asked Chef Katy for the green goddess recipe, and knowing that one of her next gigs might be writing a cookbook with a chef she once worked with (at Outstanding in the Field), I asked her if she’d be interested also in writing a blog post about the recipe. Here is…..

Chef Katy Anne on Green Goddess dressing, and a bit more:

There’s this little book called How To Eat that I like to read now and then, and in it, an anecdote called “Nothing Comes From Nothing:”

“Bread comes from the wheat fields, from hard work, and from the baker, the supplier, and the seller…in this slice of bread there is sunshine, there is cloud, there is the labor of the farmer, the joy of having flour, and the skill of the baker, and then — miraculously! — there is bread. The whole cosmos has come together so that this piece of bread can be in your hand.”

Pop-up dinners are a similar thing. The entire cosmos has conspired to bring the bread to the table (and the melons and the kale and the ice cream), and so many hands have brought the table to the garden, the flowers to their vases, the music, the linens, the cocktails in mason jars. It often feels miraculous when all of the elements come perfectly together — but it’s not really, save the weather — it’s due to the hard work, creativity, and diligence of people like L.R. and his team.

I first met L.R. about two months ago when I was working in the kitchen at The Kitchen. We found out quickly that his favorite restaurant when he lived in New York is a restaurant that I worked in the kitchen of too: The Spotted Pig. I’m still not exactly sure if our years overlapped there, but in any case, we had that in common: a deep love for that kind of addictive, charismatic comfort food.

It wasn’t too much later that he invited me to cook one of his pop-up dinners. I planned the menu at the farmer’s market, on a cool and rainy Wednesday night. Early July is an exciting, transitional time of year in terms of local produce: it’s the very end of the Spring harvest and the beginning of the Summer season. There were still fava beans and spring peas spilling out of green baskets; brown bins of kale & beets & baby carrots; and also a few fragrant hints of summer: peaches and cherries and heirloom tomatoes in almost every color of the rainbow. I walked around the market with rain dripping off of me, buying bounties of stone fruits, leafy vegetables, and a whole side of brisket that I carried in my purse. I settled on a menu: an heirloom tomato, melon & feta salad; a kale and peach panzanella; smoked brisket tacos with a pickled rhubarb slaw, and a peach & browned butter ice cream with homemade sugar cones.

Meanwhile, L.R. chose a rosé to pair with every course and found two gracious hosts, Helen and Doug, with a really lovely house in South Boulder. It was obvious to me that L.R., Eva, Katy, and everyone else involved are naturals at what they do. They’re accommodating, wonderful and bright human beings; they’re warmly hospitable, attentive, and creative. Throughout the day, as I braised brisket and sliced tomatoes and heirloom melons, I watched the dinner come together seamlessly: a white-clothed table between garden rows in the backyard, vases of purple and yellow wildflowers, bins of mason jars, red & white linen napkins tied together with twine. When it rained in the afternoon, they moved the furniture from the living room to build (an equally lovely) back-up space. It felt like a magic show that I was in the midst of.

And, at the end of it all, the universe conspired with us to create exactly what the pop-up promised: a really lovely, warm summer night.

warm summer night, from Katy

Enter, Green Goddess

For one of the appetizers, I made roasted root vegetables with a version of Green Goddess dressing. Remember Green Goddess? I don’t, because I wasn’t born yet. It was originally invented in the 1920’s and was re-popularized in the 70’s as a “healthy” alternative to Ranch and French salad dressings. It was originally made with mayonnaise and sour cream, but I wanted to lighten it (and thicken it) up by using yogurt, my favorite condiment. I love the combination of root vegetables (hearty and sweet with little burnt edges) and tart yogurt, so I thought: why not add a bunch of herbs to get a crisp and grassy garden flavor? I’m excited to say that it worked.

The Recipe

This would be great as a dip for raw or roasted vegetables, as a dressing for potato, chicken, or egg salad, and pretty much anything else you can think of

Greek Yogurt Green Goddess

Makes 1 cup

1 cup Greek Yogurt (I like 2%,
but 0% works too)

2 anchovy filets

1 clove garlic

½ cup each: chopped dill, parsley, chives, tarragon

3 T good olive oil

Salt & lemon juice to taste

I love how Katy has the hors d'oeuvres easy to eat - already dressed, on toothpicks

I love how Katy has the hors d’oeuvres easy to eat – already dressed, on toothpicks

In a food processor, chop the garlic & anchovy.

Add yogurt and blend together.

Add all herbs at once and blend on high, stopping to stir if necessary, until herbs are finely chopped & emulsified into the yogurt. (Be careful not to blend for too long, or the herbs might go brown).

Add olive oil and blend just for a second until combined.

Remove from the food processor and season with salt & lemon juice to taste.


You can follow Chef Katy Anne on Instagram, @wemustbe