Friday, November 14, 2008

Kids Make Hoppin' John

Where would mankind be without beans?

Beans are loved the world over in flavorful bean dishes and in processed foods such as tofu. They're full of fiber and iron and lots of protein. But as the kids in our "food appreciation" classes learned this week, beans do not provide the complete protein needed to grow healthy bodies because they lack some important amino acids. That's why beans are so often paired with grains such as rice and corn. Not only do grains taste great with beans, they bring the required amino acids to the table. The proliferation of bean and rice dishes around the world is no accident.

As we continue our virtual food road trip, we made our way to South Carolina where the "low country" once was an important source of rice in America. You can still find lowcountry rice, but its importance to the nation's food basket has faded. What lives on is a bean and rice dish traditional to the region called "Hoppin' John."

This is a very simple dish made by cooking the beans in a pot with onion and ham hock, then adding the rice to cook in the flavorful broth. An easier one-pot dish could hardly be found, and this one is very kind on the budget as well. Hoppin' John falls into the category of poverty food, yet like so many traditional country dishes, this one is so delicious and so satisfying.

This recipe comes from a book appropriately titled, Hoppin' John's Lowcountry Cooking, written by John Martin Taylor. It's a book worth owning for the many simple, hearty dishes we associate with this particular region.

The cooking time required for making Hoppin' John is a bit longer than we have in our "food appreciation" classes, so I made the dish ahead. What the kids did was shell the beans we had growing in our garden, as shown in the photo of blackeyed peas above. I brought the whole plants--brown and dessicated--to school in a recycling bin.

Kids are funny. Sometimes the simplest things will occupy them totally. They go from being utterly unteachable one minute, to completely absorbed in the task of shelling beans the next.

Normally I use brown rice for nutrition, but white rice is traditional for this dish. You might try using brown basmati rice--it's not quite so brown and does not take too long to cook.

1 cup dried beans such as cowpeas or blackeyed peas
5 cups water
1 smoke ham hock
1 medium onion, cut into small dice
1 cup long grain rice
salt to taste

Pick over the beans to remove any stones or damaged beans. Add them to a heavy pot with the water, removing any beans that float. Add ham hock and onion. Bring pot to a boil, then reduce heat and cook, uncovered, until beans are tender, about 1 1/2 hours. Add rice and cook until tender. Remove pot from heat, cover and allow rice to steam another 10 minutes.

Serve warm, preferably with some boiled greens (the vitamin C in the greens helps absorb the iron in the beans) and a slice of corn bread.

Just to illustrate how important rice and beans are around the world, a parent came up to me while I was washing the cook pot after our lesson and exclaimed, "Oh! You're making a rice cookup." I must have given her a quizzical look, because she went on the explain: "That's what my mother always called it, 'rice cookup.' She'd make it just like that--beans and rice, some beef tripe and coconut milk...."

Turns out the parent grew up in Guiana. Not so far from South Carolina, it seems.


Taylor said...

You'll find a lot of "surprising" similarities in the food cultures of of the American South, the Carribbean and South America, and Africa. The links between the Central African coast and any former slave nations are obvious, but it really tells in the cuisine of an area.

I lived in Charleston SC for some time, and did a lot of research about the cultural connections between the areas (I actually worked as a historian at a former rice plantation). It always made me feel good that the culinary traditions of the slaves homes' were so well preserved that it became a hallmark of the modern areas. What would Charleston be without shrimp and grits, cornbread, and hoppin' John?

Ed Bruske said...

Taylor, thanks for taking the time to validate our fascination with the lawcountry food culture. There are many common threads in the foodways of the American coast, Carribbean, South America, Africa--the books of Jessica Harris follow these threads in great depth for anyone who want to follow up. Thanks also for the prompt to visit your blog, where you've got great stuff about growing food for self-sufficiency--green tomatoes, canning and lots more. Great stuff.