Monday, January 2, 2012

Lucky beans and a change of plan

I was going to make Vietnamese fried fish for the first dinner of 2012: a glorious, fresh-turmeric-tinted dish with jasmine rice and fresh herbs. The black-eyed peas were just going to be a little side dish, done with herbs and lime, flavors that would go with the fish but still (hopefully) hold their good luck. But when I opened the parchment packet of sea bass I had bought the day before, I was taken aback by its weird, ever-so-stomach-turning smell. It had gone bad. 
Since I had nothing else at hand, the beans were thrust from side stage to center stage; perhaps their good luck was already at work, because I had most of the ingredients to make a Hoppin' Johnesque sort of stew. Or maybe the good luck was that I didn't get completely bummed and order a medium pie with anchovies and olives. Or maybe luck had nothing to do with anything, and it was all the power of bacon.
But whatever it was, our New Years black-eyed peas had never tasted better. I was so relieved! The peas were creamy and the Holy Trinity of onion, green pepper and celery, along with oregano and spicy green chili, evoked that cozy Southern cooking style that seems to say, Don't worry. Just relax. Home cooking is on the way.
 My left brain knows that it probably doesn't really matter what the first dinner of the year is. But it feels significant, as if it sets the tone, somehow, for everything that comes after. Like Byron says, "I will not dwell upon ragouts or roasts, albeit all human history attests that happiness for man —the hungry sinner! — since Eve ate apples, much depends on dinner." (!!!!)  
If this is the kind of luck that the peas have decided to bring this year — the luck to rescue a situation, even if it means drastically deviating from my original plan, then bring it on. I'll be ready!
Lucky Beans
2 large, thick rashers of bacon, or 4 conventional pieces, sliced into 1 cm. pieces
1 medium onion, diced
1 green pepper, diced
2 celery ribs, diced
Hot green chili pepper minced, or red pepper flakes, to taste
1/2 teaspoon oregano
1/2 teaspoon paprika
black pepper to taste
1 14 oz. can of black eyed peas
3 tomatoes, diced, or 1 14 oz. can of diced tomatoes

1. In a skillet with a lid, fry the bacon over medium heat until the fat renders and the meat is as crispy as you like. Remove the bacon using a slotted spoon and set aside.

2. Add the onion, pepper, celery, hot pepper and spices to the bacon fat, and gently saute over medium heat until the onion is translucent. Everything will start smelling delicious right about now.

3. Add the black eyed peas and tomatoes, bring to a simmer, and put the lid on the skillet. Turn the heat down as far as it can go, and gently cook everything for about five minutes, allowing all the ingredients to get to know each other. If the beans are too soupy, remove the lid and cook for a few minutes longer to drive off some of the liquid. Otherwise, done!

3 cups chicken broth
1 cup corn grits, also sold as polenta
A tablespoon or two of butter, if you feel like it

1. Bring the broth to a boil in a saucepan with a lid.

2. While stirring, sprinkle in the grits and turn down the heat. Clamp on the lid, and cook for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. Some people say that corn grits and polenta must be stirred constantly to be smooth, but I think it works just as well to stir now and then and break up any lumps if they form.

3. Stir in as much butter as you like, and serve.

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