New Year's food traditions around the world

December 26, 2012 

New Year's celebrations around the world center on a special feast.

This holiday not only celebrates the coming year, and gives us time to ponder the old, but most importantly we prepare special foods that many hope will insure good luck in the coming year. The festivities differ country by country but almost everywhere there is a special food and drink that is traditionally served.

In many places the drink of preference is Champagne, the bubbly, sparkling wine that is almost exclusively associated with celebration, and that's a pity.

The economist John Maynard Keynes' reported last words were, "I wish I had drunk more Champagne," and perhaps this is a warning we should all heed.

A good glass of Champagne is indeed a marvel, and we shouldn't wait for a special occasion to enjoy one. Certainly a top-of-the-line champagne is costly, a bottle of Veuve Clicquot will set you back at least $50 and the ever-popular and vastly overpriced Don Perignon three times that at least, but there are other options.

Try an Italian Prosecco, there are dozens to choose from and there are some that are quite good. Strictly speaking it is not a champagne, as it does not come from the Champagne region of France, but it is a widely regarded sparkling wine.

In Spain and Mexico, New Year's Eve is celebrated by eating a grape at each chime of the midnight clock and making a wish with each. In Italy, the celebrants eat cotechino con lenticchie or sausages and green lentils, while in France the feast might include foie gras, oysters and, of course, really good Champagne.

In the American South, and in many other places, the food served symbolizes hoped for riches: black-eyed peas for coins and greens for folding money. This is humble fare to be sure, but with special care these simple foods can be made delicious. Always remember presentation: present it poorly and it will be poorly received.

BLACK-EYED PEAS

A dear friend, Lyle Bongé, used to say that to make peas or beans really good only required more garlic and ham than you might think

possible. Perhaps that is a bit of an exaggeration, dear Lyle was inclined to the dramatic, but it is at heart true. If you want to make your black-eyed peas from scratch, please do, but if you are in a bit of a hurry feel free to use canned peas, but just be sure to rinse them thoroughly to remove the excessive salt.

3 cups prepared black-eyed peas

1 cup cubed ham

2/3 cup chopped onion

1/2 cup chopped green bell pepper

1/2 cup chopped celery

1 chopped jalapeno pepper (seeds removed)

4-6 chopped garlic toes

2 cups chicken stock

Black pepper, red pepper flakes

Sauté the ham until well-browned, add the onion, celery, jalapeno and bell pepper and sauté for 10 minutes, remember to season as you go. Add the garlic and cook until soft. Add the stock and bring to a simmer, uncovered, for at least 30 minutes. Add more stock if necessary. Next add the black-eyed peas (if you put them in at first they would be over-cooked) and simmer for 10 more minutes.

A trick to make this dish something special is to plate it as if it were something special. Try using a wine glass or anther ornate container and a silver spoon. Garnish with croutons and make them with cornbread if you want to keep it a bit more traditional. An additional green garnish, perhaps a few julienned basil leaves will add a nice touch.

BLACK-EYED PEA JAMBALAYA

1 cup cubed ham

1 cup sliced smoked sausage

1 cup chopped onion

1/2 cup chopped bell pepper

6 toes chopped garlic

Small sprig thyme

Chicken stock to cover

1 pound black-eyed peas

1 pound large peeled shrimp

1 cup jasmine rice

1 bay leaf

Black pepper, red pepper flakes, cayenne

Olive oil as necessary

Green onions for garnish

Steam the rice, preferable in a rice steamer. Sauté the ham and sausage in a little oil until well browned, add the onion, bell pepper and thyme, bay leaf and sauté until soft. Add the garlic and cook for 2 minutes more. Remember to season as you go, taste and season again as necessary. Add the dried black eyed peas (if you are using canned add the peas 10 minutes before it is done), cover with chicken stock and simmer until the peas are tender (about 1 hour). Separately, season the shrimp and sauté over a hot flame, just until they take on a little color, not more than 1 minute. Combine the peas, rice and shrimp, stir well and simmer just 5-10 minutes more. Garnish with the green onions.

BLACK-EYED PEAS AND GREENS SOUP

Black-eyed pea recipe above

1 quart chicken stock (homemade is best)

1 bunch collard greens (kale, turnip greens or spinach all work as well)

3-4 chopped toes of garlic

3-4 tablespoons olive oil

1-2 cups water

Make the black-eyed pea recipe above. Remove the tough stems from the greens and rinse well. Sauté the garlic in the oil, then add the greens a hand full at a time, stirring until they begin to wilt, add the water and steam until tender. Remove the greens, add to the peas along with the stock and simmer until well incorporated. Serve piping hot.

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