It’s an odd time always between Christmas and New Years. Kind of like being in the eye of a hurricane, for me, at least. All the commotion of Christmas behind you and boxed up (at my house I have the Christmas ornaments packed and stored at the stroke of midnight Christmas Day), New Year’s Eve still ahead, and then a whole new year sprawled out in front of you like Uncle Fred after a Christmas party.
Outside its gloomy and every once in a while the slightest hint of raindrops appear on the asphalt. Makes me want to cook. In honor of my time in the southern states I have a large pot of Hoppin John bubbling on the stove. Hoppin John, according to legend, is good luck on New Year’s, in particular financially, so I’m not taking any chances. The lovely aroma hovering in the kitchen has even Mouse the cat standing on her hind legs to get a whiff. Before I moved to the American South I’d never tried black-eyed peas. Nor, for that matter, had I tasted okra, the juries still out on that, and until I moved to Arkansas I had the impression catfish were to be thrown back if caught as they were scavengers and not much good eating. Now it is true, the whiskered bottom breeders are indeed noted scavengers, but it is not true that they aren’t great eating when breaded and fried.
We’re staying in this year. In truth, New Year’s Eve has never been my most successful holiday, so I’d rather cook a couple of lobster tails, rent a good movie, and share a glass or two of champagne and call it good. Which, as it happens, is exactly what we’re doing.
Before I met my other half, I dated a man for several years that loved New Year’s Eve. It was his holiday of choice. Although usually thrifty, and I’m being exceptionally polite with that adjective, the other 364 days of the year, on New Year’s Eve money, it seemed, had been printed for him to spend. On our second year as a couple he brought home a number of brochures regarding New Year’s Eve for us to decide on. One offered a night at a four-star hotel which included a seven course dinner in their premier dining room, party hats and horns, and entertainment provided by a well-known group popular at the time. I believe this package ran around $1200.00 per couple. What? We could be whale watching in Lahaina for that. However, it was his night, and his outlay, so in the spirit of the moment I bought a fabulous long and slinky red dress, slightly off the shoulder, shoes and accessories. My mother always says a woman can’t have a bad time in red dress, but I managed to identify some serious flaws in this assertion.
Around the beginning of the week prior to the big event, I sneezed my first sneeze. I’d been working long hours that year at a dot.com company and was a total burnout both mentally and physically. Everyone in the office had come down with some dreadful hacking cough sounding like residents in a T.B. ward. I’d been dosing with vitamin C and Echinacea in an effort to stave off all the germs circling my cubicle.
In spite of my efforts, two days prior to our non-refundable fun evening of pampering, I had developed a two pack a day Kleenex habit, my nose now a perfect match for my crimson dress. Both eyes had dark circles under them, I spent most of my time in the bathroom, and my cough had sufficient velocity to put out a house fire.
Determined not to ruin the evening and knowing full well that $1200.00 would be lost, I bucked up. The room at the hotel was fabulous, with a panoramic view of San Francisco. We were to be downstairs at 6:00 for appetizers and cocktails and dinner service was to begin around 7:30. Managing somehow to get dressed, and being quite sure that I was going to be pronounced dead at the scene in a matter of seconds, we entered the elevator joining several other well-dressed couples already going down. By the time we reached the lobby one man was holding a handkerchief over his mouth and I believe the lady standing directly to my right was administering me the last rights.
As beautiful as the hotel room was, the dining room outshined it. Bouquets of majestic white gladiolas were everywhere, spilling out of the tops of tall white vases. Silver and white being the theme, tables were covered in shimmering silver linen cloths and topped with impressive hurricane lamps flickering from the candles inside. Waiters in tuxes circulated through packed rooms with silver trays containing plates of smoked salmon, and bacon wrapped scallops. Others passed out delicate flutes of bubbling champagne and orange mimosas to the already merry group. I found myself looking for the tray with NyQuil and an ice pack, but somebody had overlooked that.
After giving our name to the hostess, a waiter escorted us through the crowd to our seats. At this point I was beginning to sweat profusely and my hair was sticking to the nape of my neck. Definitely this wasn’t helping to achieve the look I had originally been going for. Just the smell of food was making me nauseous and lucky old me I had seven courses coming right up. Argh.
At the table we were seated with five other couples. After introducing ourselves and a few good sneezes and healthy snarfs from my direction the other five couples huddled together at the opposite end of the table as though we had a black “P” for plague written on our chests.
The first course, a single scallop, my favorite naturally, arrived on a plate in a lovely rich sauce. Argh, hack. I ate one bite and turned completely pale. Unable to move on my own, my date reluctantly bid fond farewell to his check and the six delectable courses that our waiter would be taking home and escorted me to our room. Calling the desk in a panic, it seemed they had a doctor on call. Really? Who knew. He arrived about an hour later and determined that I had pneumonia dispensing enough antibiotics to keep me going until I could see my personal doctor. I spent the rest of the evening in bed in my lovely red dress oblivious to the fact that my date had consumed two bottles of expensive champagne and passed out watching the ball come down in Time Square. Poor guy.
Happy New Years! Give this a try, perhaps just for luck. Add heat or subtract according to your tastes.
2 Tbsp. olive oil
2 large ham hocks (meaty if possible)
(or substitute 2 andouille sausages for 1 hock)
1 yellow onion, chopped
1/2 cup celery, chopped
1 small green pepper, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 lb. black-eyed peas, sorted, soaked overnight, and rinsed
1 1/2 quarts chicken stock
2 bay leafs
1 14 1/2 oz. can diced tomatoes with jalapeno peppers (optional on the peppers)
1/2 tsp. dried thyme leaves
1 tsp. cumin
1/2 – 1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. black pepper
1/8 tsp. cayenne pepper (optional)
Heat oil in large stock pot. Sear ham hocks on all sides for about 5 mins. Add onion, celery, green pepper and garlic. Cook 4 mins. longer. Add all remaining ingredients except rice. Bring to boil over med-high heat. Reduce heat to low and simmer for 1 1/2 hours until peas are creamy and tender. Remove the meat from the ham hocks and return meat to pot. Adjust seasonings if necessary. Serve over steaming white rice.