Posted Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2012, at 1:57 PM
Photo by L.V. Anderson
The best superstitions are gastronomic: It may not make any rational sense to believe that consuming a certain food item on a certain date has any bearing on the direction of the rest of your life—but if you do it right, the worst that can happen is that you’ll have eaten something delicious.
This is why many Americans make an annual effort to eat black-eyed peas on or around New Year’s. The practice dates at least to the Civil War in the American South and appears to have both African and Jewish roots. According to some traditions, the peas’ tendency to swell when cooked portends prosperity; according to others, the ovoid legumes resemble coins. (Neither of these explanations is particularly convincing—but then again, most explanations for superstitions are lacking in the persuasiveness department.)
Many Southerners consume black-eyed peas in hoppin’ john, a stew that combines them with rice and bacon or ham hocks. Texans may eat them in a salad known as Texas caviar, which contains bell peppers, red onions, celery, and sometimes corn in addition to black-eyed peas. These culinary traditions are noble and good (especially when served alongside cornbread)—but if you really want to maximize the luckiness of your black-eyed peas, you ought to combine them with another auspicious New Year’s ingredient: cabbage, whose superficial resemblance to money is supposed to translate to real-world wealth (according to certain European traditions).
A good black-eyed pea and cabbage soup can, like Paul Simon’s Graceland, mash up different cultural traditions to unexpectedly delightful effect. Soft, earthy peas and silky, dense cabbage leaves are made even more delicious when you simmer them with onions, carrots, celery, and garlic—all of which have been softened in a tremendous quantity of olive oil. When you cook half of the aromatic vegetables in half the oil before adding the other half of everything (a technique I learned from Mark Bittman) you get some vegetables that are caramelized and meltingly soft and others that remain savory and firm. The approach takes a little longer than sweating vegetables for your average soup, but the upshot, a deeply flavored broth, is totally worth it.
This recipe makes a lot, but the soup freezes beautifully—and it’s also surprisingly habit-forming (or maybe not so surprisingly, given how much olive oil it contains). Even if you’re not superstitious, having a batch of this soup on hand will feel like a stroke of good fortune.
Black-Eyed Pea and Cabbage Soup
Yield: 12 servings
Time: About 1½ hours, partially unattended
1 pound dried black-eyed peas, rinsed and picked over
⅔ cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 large yellow onions, chopped
3 medium carrots, peeled and chopped
3 celery stalks, chopped
5 garlic cloves, minced
1 medium head Savoy cabbage, cored and roughly chopped
1 bunch parsley, roughly chopped, thick stems discarded
One 26-ounce box or 28-ounce can chopped tomatoes
1. Put the black-eyed peas in a large pot and add enough water to cover them by 2 to 3 inches. Cover and bring to a boil, then adjust the heat so the water simmers gently. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the peas are mostly tender, 30 to 40 minutes; season with salt. (You can do this step a day or two ahead of time: Cool the peas, transfer them to an airtight container with their cooking liquid, and refrigerate until you’re ready to make the soup.)
2. Put ⅓ cup of the olive oil in a large, deep pot over medium-high heat. When it’s hot, add about half the onions, carrots, and celery and cook, stirring occasionally, until they soften, about 10 minutes. Add the remaining ⅓ cup oil and the remaining onions, carrots, and celery; season liberally with salt and pepper. Cook, stirring occasionally, for another 10 minutes.
3. Add the garlic, the cabbage, and most of the parsley; cook, stirring occasionally, until the cabbage is softened, 5 to 7 minutes.
4. Add the black-eyed peas (with their liquid) and the chopped tomatoes to the pot, along with enough water to make the mixture stewlike but not watery. Cover, bring to a boil, reduce the heat so the mixture simmers steadily, and cook until the cabbage is very tender, 20 to 30 minutes. Taste and adjust the seasoning, and serve hot or warm, garnished with the remaining parsley.