The New Year’s Good Luck Foods
Line drawings by Sarah Klein (sarahklein.com) with coloring by Maggie Gosselin.
Jessica Prentice, Maggie Gosselin, and Sarah Klein created the Local Foods Wheel to help us all enjoy the freshest, tastiest, and most ecologically sound food choices month by month. Here are seven of Jessica’s seasonal favorites. You can learn more about the Local Foods Wheel and the group’s other ventures at localfoodswheel.com.
A dear family friend, Nancy from North Carolina, always held a New Year’s Day party featuring “good luck” foods of the South, which are said to ensure a year of good health and prosperity. Nancy encouraged everyone to eat at least a bite of each food. In continuing Nancy’s tradition with a similar party, I’ve had some new ideas about the customs and preparations.
The quintessential New Year’s food has to be black-eyed peas, which are thought to bring good fortune in the money department. Perhaps these dried beans remind people of coins, but I think about how a single bean can yield a plant producing hundreds or thousands of beans. In an agricultural society, this is wealth indeed!
Turnips ensure love in the coming year. When I was young I thought it was odd for a rather bitter, humble vegetable to symbolize love. But I’ve learned a few things. One is that small turnips, when quartered and roasted with plenty of fat, turn out amazingly sweet: At the party, these often need to be rationed so everyone gets a bite. Another is that turnips fermented in salt brine make a deeply satisfying probiotic pickle. But also, now that I’ve reached my mid-forties, I’ve come to see how love can be quite like a turnip: often more bitter than sweet, sometimes woody and hard to chew, but if handled thoughtfully and with intention, amazingly sweet, satisfying, and nourishing.
Leafy greens such as collards, kale, cabbage, mustard greens, and turnip greens are another classic of many New Year’s Day menus, whether they be from Italians, Pennsylvania Dutch, or American Southerners. The common explanation is that the flat green leaves resemble paper money, and maybe it’s so. Nancy insisted on cabbage for her Good Luck menu, saying it was simply for “luck.” (The black-eyed peas apparently covered the money part.) Since I follow Nancy’s lead, you can count on cabbage if you spend January 1st at my house. I like to sauté it with plenty of fat and then braise it with broth. Some years I culture it instead. The Love and Luck Kraut we make at Three Stone Hearth is equal parts shredded cabbage and turnips cultured in sea salt. This lets you cover two bases with one bite!
Caramelized onions, denoting patience, were always part of Nancy’s feast, and it would seem that the labor of slicing them and cooking them down would be a good way for a person to cultivate patience. With black-eyed peas, cabbage, and turnips taking up my stove’s burner space, I make it easy on myself and simply toss chopped onions into the cooking black-eyed peas. Sometimes I mince up green onions to go on top of the peas.
Nancy always included peaches as a good luck food, and certainly, fresh fruit is important in a healthy diet. However, since fresh ripe local peaches are only available here in summer, a locavore like me might prefer to serve preserved fruit on New Year’s Day. This year during peach season I blanched, peeled, and sliced the fruit, tossed it in a mixture of lemon juice and honey (to avoid white sugar), and put it into the freezer to await the party on January 1.
Some traditions say you should never eat chicken on New Year’s Day, as chickens scratch backwards. Since hogs can’t look backwards, you should eat pork instead, and smoked pork is what most Southerners serve. In times past, farmers would have cured and smoked their pork in the smokehouse a few months earlier. Nancy liked to roast a whole ham, but other times she would throw a smoked ham hock in with the black-eyed peas (always making a second pot with no pork in it for the vegetarians). I often cook my peas with a smoked trotter in the pot, or I’ll make a broth with the trotter first and cook the peas in that.
Many people will tell you that Hoppin’ John—black-eyed peas and rice—is the dish to serve on January 1, but Nancy liked to “sop the plate” with fresh-baked cornbread. I usually cook up a pot of rice but also bake several cast-iron pans full of cornbread made using nixtamalized cornmeal and soured whole-wheat. I am offering a recipe here if you want to follow my lead.
In closing, I want to say “Thank you, dear Nancy, for all the inspiration, nourishment, and lucky years of life I’ve had!”
The indigenous peoples of the Americas, where corn originated and has remained a staple food, learned very early on to take dried corn through an important transformative process before eating it. Called nixtamalization, the process involves steeping and cooking the corn in an alkaline solution to break down the pericarp on the kernel, thus releasing B vitamins, such as niacin, so they can nourish the body. Unfortunately knowledge of nixtamalization did not always spread with the cultivation of corn, and the result has been deficiency diseases, such as pellagra, in cultures around the world where corn was adopted as a staple. Even in the southern United States there was a time when pellagra was epidemic among impoverished people who ate large quantities of dried corn in the form of grits and cornbread without first nixtamalizing it.
At Three Stone Hearth, we always nixtamalize our polenta, posole, or cornmeal as part of the cooking process. Below is a recipe for a nutrient-dense version of cornbread. You’ll need to do some prior planning and preparation, but this isn’t difficult, and it ensures you are getting the most value from the cornmeal nutrients. Nixtamalization offers two more benefits: It renders coarse bits of dried corn kernels easier to chew and digest, and it releases the natural sweetness of the corn.
The recipe here calls for an additional process for enhancing nutritional value. By mixing the wheat flour with a cultured dairy product and allowing it to culture for several hours, preferably overnight, you can neutralize the phytic acid in the wheat, making the flour’s minerals more bioavailable and the bread easier to digest. It also improves the flavor.
I tested the recipe using local organic flour and the Bloody Butcher Cornmeal from Full Belly Farm, and the result was a delicious and beautifully rich terra-cotta-colored cornbread.
To make limewater:
Lime (the mineral, not the fruit) is the alkali that will nixtamalize the corn. Also known as calcium hydroxide, slaked lime is available as “cal” in Mexican markets or as “pickling lime” sold alongside canning materials. When you are working with it, don’t taste it or touch the lime, if possible, as it can be very irritating to the skin.
8 ounces slaked lime
2 quarts filtered water
Place the slaked lime in a 2-quart mason jar and add the filtered water. Put on the lid and shake. Set aside and allow the powder to settle to the bottom of the jar. This may take a couple of hours so it’s good to do this part in advance.
After you have poured off the amount of limed water needed for your recipe, top off the jar with fresh water, give it a shake, and put it on your dry goods shelf for any time you might need to nixtamalize polenta, cornmeal, or posole. You can keep limewater for many years.
To make the cornbread:
1–2 cups limewater
2 cups cornmeal
1 cup whole wheat or spelt flour
¾ cup Greek-style yogurt or sour cream
8 tablespoons butter (1 stick), lard, bacon drippings, or other good fat
A little extra fat for greasing the pan
¾ teaspoon salt
½ cup sucanat
¾ teaspoon baking soda
¾ teaspoon baking powder
Pour 2 cups of limewater into a small pot, being careful to leave the powdered lime behind at the bottom of the jar. (You want only the alkalized water.) Bring the water to a boil.
Place the cornmeal in a ceramic or glass dish. When the limewater comes to a boil, pour it over the cornmeal and stir. Use as much limewater as needed to lightly moisten all the cornmeal. Allow it to sit for several hours or overnight.
Place the flour in a bowl and mix in the yogurt or sour cream until all the flour is moistened. Cover with a damp cloth and let sit in a warm spot for at least 4 hours, preferably overnight.
When you are ready to bake, preheat the oven to 350˚ and grease a large cast iron pan or ceramic baking dish with the extra fat.
Beat together the eggs. Add the cornmeal mixture to the eggs and whisk together. Then add in the flour/dairy mixture and beat until blended.
In a small pot, melt the butter. Whisk in the salt and sucanat and then pour this into the cornmeal/flour mixture. Mix until blended. Then sift the baking soda and baking powder over the batter and mix it in. Pour the batter into the pan, making sure to leave some space in the pan for the cornbread to rise.
Bake for 35–50 minutes, depending on the size of the pan. It’s done when a toothpick or skewer comes out clean. Let the cornbread sit at least 10 minutes before slicing to serve.