As I sit here listening to the playoff game between the Atlanta Falcons and the Seattle Seahawks, with the Georgia Dome’s roof about to explode off, I am reminded of everyone in Time Square on New Year’s Eve. My husband made me stay up to actually ring in the New Year with a glass of champagne this year. In the past few years we’ve just fallen asleep and had mimosas the next morning! Well, we did that too this year, of course. New Year’s Day and the preparations for a good Southern New Year’s Day traditional meal is my favorite holiday and meal of the year. It’s like happiness just consumes me. Actually getting up early, washing and prepping the collard, mustard and turnip greens to cook, soaking the black eyed peas overnight, parboiling them, rinsing them again…now it’s time to really start cooking! First, the greens. All into a huge pot they go, cover in water (because they are going to cook all day!), add chopped onion, generous amounts of salt, pepper, sugar, chopped ham, ham bouillion (or chicken if you can’t find the elusive ham!), tabasco or whatever pepper sauce is on hand. You will notice I do not cook with a ham hock. This is the only thing I don’t do that my Mom and grandmothers did. It’s just healthier, and the ham chunks and bouillion taste just as good! Turn the temperature on the burner up so it will eventually boil and then turn down, add more water, and let simmer. Mmmmm. Now, to start the peas. Do pretty much the same to them as to the greens really…all the same stuff except no sugar please! Let them boil slowly because they will get done well before the greens if you don’t.
While you’re doing all this it’s good to go ahead and boil whatever eggs you want for deviled eggs, I swear my husband’s favorite food! He takes over after they are boiled and ready; he’s actually MY sous chef for this day…he cooks the rest of the year mostly, but on this day, it’s my kitchen! Once he’s peeled the eggs he arranges my area to put the eggs together in a masterful mix of boiled egg yolks, sweet pickle relish, apple cider vinegar, salt, pepper, mayonnaise and a couple of ingredients I will not give away here. My little secret. The folks at work also request these little gems of deliciousness almost every year at our Thanksgiving divisional dinner. I now have 5 deviled egg dishes: my great Clemson Tiger dish (a gift from my sister-in-law), my crystal dish (a wedding gift), my black & white chicken dish (inherited from my mother-in-law’s kitchen), my Christmas china Christmas tree dish (another gift from my sister-in-law), and the ever present Rubbermaid plastic container to refill when the nice dishes start getting egg empty!
After the wonderful little yellow & white ovals are ready for the fridge and are delicately placed to get good and cold, time to relax. Which usually means getting dressed! And enjoying a cup of coffee, most likely my second or third of the day. Checking out the Tournament of Roses Parade on TV, checking on the greens and peas, every so often, adding water as needed. Once the greens lose their bright green color and start getting that more dark olive color, it’s time to start tasting and testing consistency. How much longer do they need to cook? Have they lost their pungent taste, the icky crunchiness? Are they getting towards being soft and getting that mixture of slightly sweet but acidic goodness? More sugar, salt, pepper, pepper sauce, maybe ham, and water are added as needed. There is no measuring when cooking greens. It’s all years of trial and error, tasting, failed attempts, and lots and lots of love.
Black eyed peas aren’t as picky, the little devils! They flavor pretty easily because they are sort of blank pallettes. Once they have the right taste and have boiled a bit, they can go on a very low simmer and just be watched to add water. I always keep tasting, just to make sure, you know, that they have that just right taste and don’t lose it. They never have; I don’t know why I think they will after I get them just right…but that’s the Southern cook in me I guess. I am definitely a taste cook. I would never, ever serve anyone anything that I have not tasted first! And if it doesn’t taste right? Well, I have been known to either trash it (if it was bad enough) or keep it at home for our consuption. This doesn’t happen often these days; I am about to be the big 5-0 this year so I hope, even though I don’t cook every day, that I have learned a few tricks of the trade over the years.
When greens, peas, and eggs are ready, cornbread is last! I love making cornbread! Once it comes out of the skillet, it’s time to eat! Scott has cooked whatever pork he feels like; some years it’s a smoked pork butt, sometimes a pork loin, sometimes pork chops, and sometimes just bought BBQ! But whatever it is, the meal is literally my favorite of the year. We have enough leftovers for an army so we eat it a couple of times, freeze the greens and then eat them whenever we feel like it for the next 2-4 months.
No one ever taught me to cook. My Mom and grandmothers and aunts never sat me down and gave me lessons or formally let me cook things. It’s all osmosis. Living in a big Southern family, just being in the kitchen with everyone when the big meals were being prepared, helping my Mama Nan fix biscuits, helping prepare the fruit salad at Thanksgiving, watching Mom fix potato salad oh so many times over the years. There are a few things I actually have recipes for but they are mostly all sweets since baking is an exact art; lemon meringue pie, pound cake, etc. But don’t ask me the recipe for macaroni & cheese; it’s in my head and I never measure anything. It turns out a bit differently every time, sometimes creamier, sometimes drier, sometimes juicier, sometimes browner and more crisp on top. But always cheesy and rich! Never, ever cut corners on mac & cheese; it’s a sin in the South!
And once all the food is gone, the naps have been taken and the mind is preparing for work once again, I can start dreaming of next holiday season and my favorite day of the year!
Happy New Year everyone!!!