New Year’s Day is fast approaching! My family celebrates this holiday by having a very specific superstitious meal. We embraced the belief that eating these foods on January 1st would reverberate throughout the year. Here’s the menu and what the foods symbolized
Chitlins (pork intestines) for good health (yes, I sense the irony). Any pork food item is suitable as the entree because pigs root forward. A chicken entree would be unlucky since they scratch backwards.
Black-eyed peas for good luck. This gets a little confusing because these “peas” are actually beans. In many cultures, beans, especially dried beans, are lucky because they swell when cooked, thus signaling an increase or abundance. Black-eyed peas also represent prosperity in the form of coins.
Greens for an abundance of paper money. Any type of greens can be used, but in the soul food tradition the most popular are collard, kale, mustard, and turnip greens. You may prepare any of those greens by themselves or combine them any way you wish. Just be mindful that each type of greens has different cooking times.
The meal is rounded out with other items in order to “get our colors” as some would say: cornbread (yellow), candied yams (orange), and of course, a red drink. This isn’t traditional, but my family’s favorite dessert for this holiday is lemon icebox pie.
I’ve excerpted the following recipes from my James Beard Award-winning book Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time.
Chitlins need a lot of attention and plenty of time if you’re going to properly clean them. I got my best chitlins-cleaning lesson standing at my brother Duran’s side. Duran’s so adept at it that he’s taught many others. His chitlins wind up being velvety, less greasy, and less smelly. If you don’t want to do the arduous task of cleaning chitlins, you may take your chances with the precleaned chitlins products now available in grocery stores. My experience is that “precleaned” on a package of chitlins is more of an aspirational statement than a reality. Make sure that you do a close inspection before you throw your chitlins in a pot. In all likelihood, you probably will still have to clean them.
Makes 12 servings
20 pounds fresh or thawed chitlins, cut into 6-inch lengths
1 large onion, coarsely chopped
4 garlic cloves, chopped
4 tablespoons crushed red pepper flakes
Hot sauce, coleslaw, and meatless spaghetti, for serving
1. Bring a very large pot of water to a boil. Drain the chitlins and transfer them into the boiling water and let cook for 5 minutes. This step helps kill germs and does not interfere with cleaning the chitlins.
2. Drain the chitlins in a colander, pour them into a clean sink or very large bowl, and cover them with fresh, cold water. (If the chitlins came in buckets, use one of them to hold the parts that will be discarded.) Refill the large pot with cold water to hold the chitlins after they are cleaned.
3. To clean each strip of chitlins, use your fingers to separate the thin, transparent membrane from the rough part. (This is like pulling the top piece of tape from double-sided tape.) Rinse the membrane under cold running water until it is free of debris and dirty fat, but leave any clean fat. Drop the cleaned part into the pot and discard the rest.
4. Drain the pot of cleaned chitlins and cover them with fresh cold water. Repeat the draining and rinsing process until the water is no longer cloudy.
5. Bring to a simmer over medium-low heat. Simmer for 1 hour. Drain the chitlins, return them to the pot, and cover with fresh water. Simmer for 1 hour. Drain the chitlins, return them to the pot, and cover with fresh water. Add the onion, garlic, and pepper flakes. Simmer until the chitlins are very tender and a little shiny from the grease, about 2 hours more. They will look like long, gray-brown, thick noodles.
6. Remove the chitlins from the pot with tongs and divide among serving plates. Serve hot with hot sauce, coleslaw, and spaghetti with a meatless tomato sauce.
This is one of the first recipes that I got from my late mother, Johnetta Miller. Though this is a recipe for black-eyed peas, this is my standard approach for making any vegetable in “soul food style.” If you want to give this recipe a “Hoppin’ John” feel, make some rice separately, mix together, and eat.
Makes 8 servings
1 pound dried black-eyed or other field peas
1 smoked ham hock or smoked turkey wing (about 8 ounces)
1 medium onion, chopped
Crushed red pepper flakes, to taste
Salt, to taste
1. Rinse the peas and pick through them to discard any small stones or broken peas. Pour the peas into a large saucepan and cover with cold water by 2 inches. Bring them to a boil and cook for 5 minutes. Remove the pot from the heat, cover, and let stand for 1 hour. (Alternatively, place the peas in a large bowl, cover with cold water, and let stand at room temperature overnight.)
2. Meanwhile, make a stock by placing the ham hock or turkey wing in another large saucepan. Cover with water by 2 inches. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat, and simmer until the stock is flavorful, about 1 hour. Discard the hock or wing.
3. Drain the soaking liquid from the peas and add them to the stock. Make sure the peas are submerged. Stir in the onion and pepper flakes.
4. Simmer until the peas are nearly tender, about 30 minutes. Season with salt and continue simmering until the peas are tender and well-seasoned, about 10 minutes more.
5. Serve the peas warm.
6. If desired, you may pull meat off the ham hocks or turkey parts and add it to the dish before serving.
Johnetta’s Mixed Greens
This is my favorite thing to make in the soul food genre. I didn’t grow up eating collards. My late mother usually made a combination of mustard and turnip greens. Turnip greens seemed to be the popular option for greens as I traveled through Tennessee. I love the peppery aroma that mustard greens give off while they’re cooking. I’ve lately been using smoked turkey parts to season my greens because they give good flavor with less fat. Yet, every once in a while, I go retro and put on a pot of greens with some ham hocks. You may use other greens for this recipe. If you use collards or kale, I suggest doubling the cooking time.
Makes 8 servings
2 smoked ham hocks or smoked turkey leg or wings (about 1 pound)
1 1//2 pounds turnip greens
1 1//2 pounds mustard greens
1 tablespoon granulated garlic or 2 minced garlic cloves
1 medium onion, chopped
Pinch of crushed red pepper flakes
Pinch of baking soda
Pinch of sugar
Pinch of salt
1. Rinse the hocks, leg or wings, place them in a large pot, and cover with water. Bring to a boil and cook until the meat is tender and the cooking liquid is flavorful, 20 to 30 minutes. Discard the hocks, leg or wings.
2. Meanwhile, remove and discard the tough stems from the greens. Cut or tear the leaves into large, bite-sized pieces. Fill a clean sink or very large bowl with cold water. Add the leaves and gently swish them in the water to remove any dirt or grit. Lift the leaves out of the water and add them to the hot ham stock, stirring gently until they wilt and are submerged.
3. Stir in the onion, pepper flakes, baking soda, sugar, and salt.
4. Simmer until the greens are tender, about 30 minutes. Check the seasoning and serve hot.
Here’s an unusual way to make candied yams that will still leave you satisfied. Instead of putting spices in the sweet sauce, you put them in the boiling liquid. This recipe calls for peeling the sweet potatoes first, but many prefer to boil the sweet potatoes in their jackets and then peel them when they are cool enough to handle. I recommend the Beauregard, Garnet, and Jewel “yam” varieties for this dish.
Makes 4 to 6 servings
1 1//2 to 2 pounds small sweet potatoes
1//4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1//4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1//2 cup (1 stick) butter
1//2 cup firmly packed dark brown sugar
1. Peel the sweet potatoes and cut them into large wedges. Place the potatoes, cinnamon, and nutmeg in a large saucepan and cover with water. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat, and simmer until the potatoes are tender when pierced with the tip of a knife, 20 to 30 minutes. Drain them well.
2. In the same saucepan, melt the butter and brown sugar over medium-low heat, stirring until smooth. Add the sweet potatoes and stir to coat. Cook over medium heat until the potatoes are warm and the sauce bubbles, about 3 minutes. Serve warm.
Minnie Utsey’s “Never Fail” Cornbread
Minnie Utsey was one of my many “second mothers” in my home church. She was always very encouraging and interested in my soul food history project. Unfortunately, she’s already gone on to Glory, so she didn’t get to see this book. I honor her loving memory with this cornbread that lives up to its title. Do not use a substitute for the shortening, otherwise your cornbread will be very crumbly. This recipe works well if you decide to make muffins.
Makes 8 servings
1 cup all-purpose flour
1//4 cup sugar
4 teaspoons baking powder
3//4 teaspoon salt
1 1//4 cups coarse yellow cornmeal
2 large eggs
1 cup milk
1//4 cup vegetable shortening, melted and cooled
1. Preheat the oven to 425°F. Grease an 8-inch square baking pan.
2. Sift together the flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt into a large bowl. Whisk in the cornmeal. In a small bowl, whisk together the eggs, milk, and shortening until smooth. Pour the egg mixture into the flour mixture and stir until smooth. Pour the batter into the prepared baking pan.
3. Bake until firm and the top is golden brown, 20 to 25 minutes. Serve hot.
Dried hibiscus flowers should be available in your supermarket produce section or at any market catering to a Latino clientele. Showing the association with Latino culture, my grocery store displays them alongside various fresh and dried chillis. This recipe comes courtesy of the College of the Virgin Islands Cooperative Extension Service’s cookbook Native Recipes that was published in 1978. I made it to the Virgin Islands in 2010 when my twin sister, April, got married there. What a beautiful place! I like this recipe because of the way the tartness of the hibiscus and lime, the spiciness of the ginger, and the sweetener all play off each other. I like this drink on the tart side, so I usually halve the amount of sugar.
Makes 2 quarts
2 quarts water
1 ounce fresh or dried food-grade hibiscus blossoms (about 1/2 cup)
1 ounce fresh ginger, finely chopped (about 2 tablespoons)
1 cup sugar, honey, or agave syrup, or to taste
Juice of 1 fresh lime (about 3 tablespoons)
1. Bring the water to a boil in a medium saucepan. Remove the pan from the heat and add the ginger, hibiscus, and sugar. Stir until the sugar dissolves.
2. Cover and let cool to room temperature. Strain into a large pitcher.
3. Stir in the lime juice and refrigerate until chilled. Serve cold.
Lemon Icebox Pie
This pie is really meant for summer, but my family loves it so much that we had it all year long.
- 2 egg yolks
- 1 (15oz) can sweetened condensed milk
- 1/2 cup lemon juice
- 1 tsp. grated lemon rind
- 1 unbaked 9-inch vanilla wafer crust
- 3 egg whites
- 1/2 cup sugar
- Beat egg yolks until light and fluffy. Add the sweetened condensed milk and beat until fluffy. Mixture will stand in peaks. Stir in lemon juice and grated lemon rind. Spoon filling into crust made of crushed vanilla wafers and melted butter.
- Beat egg whites until foamy. Gradually add sugar and beat until mixture is stiff. Spoon on top of lemon filling being careful to seal all edges. Bake at 350° for 10 minutes. Yields one 9-inch pie.