Some sources say that the origin of eating legumes, specifically black-eyed peas in the American South, on New Year’s Day to ensure all things good revolves around their resemblance to coins. I find that easier to, uh, swallow in the case of lentils, but that’s the story. Others explain that it harkens back to Biblical times. (Please take a look at the Comments section below; Susan G and The Wimpy Vegetarian have generously supplied some wonderful information on origins of the tradition.)
Still and all, it’s a practice that I and my sister have maintained for many years. I’m not sure we’ve ever prepared them the same way twice. With ham hocks or without; vegetarian or not; spicy or tame; this year I decided to go in a Mediterranean direction. Anything that bears even slight notes of sun-filled days in warm climes must surely brighten our still-long hours of darkness. And please don’t relegate this to a once-a-year dinner; it will nourish and warm you until the sun returns to do the job.
I couldn’t wait to get home from work on Saturday afternoon and settle into warm, fleecy things and put together something high on the comfort scale. We’ve had bitterly cold weather on the heels of snow, which turned roads into skating rinks. Cars don’t appear to drive as much as they do glide silently. Stopping at the grocery store was not on the agenda. My pantry contained neither black-eyed peas nor lentils, but I did find about a pound of black beans. I should have rinsed them last evening and set them to bubble quietly overnight in the slow cooker. But clearly I didn’t plan that far ahead.
A pound of any kind of bean when cooked is a whole lot of beans. That’s good. Because one of my plans for the New Year is to be better – okay, a lot better – about taking my lunch to work. I’m at least planning that far ahead.
While a pot of tea steeped, I rinsed the beans, and started them in cold water to cover by a couple of inches, along with a fresh bay leaf (if you don’t have fresh, use a couple of dried, and bruise them a bit with your fingers). Once they came to a boil, I turned them down to a simmer and let them cook for a couple of hours until nicely tender.
Could you use canned beans instead? Of course. But you’ll miss the fragrance of the beans cooking slowly, fogging the kitchen windows, and perfuming the house.
Once done, I poured them through a colander, rinsed and dried the pot, and returned it to the stove to sauté a diced onion and a few cloves of garlic in some olive oil. When they were soft and fragrant, after about 4 to 5 minutes, I poured the beans back into the pot and also added two 14-ounce cans of Italian cherry tomatoes. They were in the pantry; use whatever canned tomatoes you have on hand. I filled the cans with water to rinse them, and added that to the pot. Finally, I tossed in a couple of more bay leaves and some thyme sprigs.
While the soup was simmering, I set a pot containing 20 ounces of water to boil and added a couple of teaspoons of salt and a cup of arborio rice.
Yes, the same stuff you would use for a pot of risotto, lovingly stirred for a long time. But I simmered it exactly as I would have any other kind of rice. I did not want it to give up its coat of thickening starches. Rather, I wanted them bound up in the rice so that once I stirred it into the soup, it would thicken it into a stew to just the right degree.
Another bay leaf, a few sprigs of fresh thyme, and the pot was covered to simmer until the aroma drove me to dip into it, about 45 minutes.
But first, I cut a thick slice of gorgeous sourdough bread, brushed it with olive oil, and ran it under the broiler to toast on both sides. Then, to gild the lily, I rubbed both sides with a fresh clove of cut garlic.
Just before filling a bowl, I swirled some baby greens into the soup, because we all know greens are good and the New Year is a fine time to begin eating more of them. Last, I seasoned it to taste with sea salt, freshly ground pepper, and a generous pinch of red pepper flakes.
I sliced the grilled bread in half, and overlapped them in the bottom of my soup bowl. Over the top went some generous ladles of steaming stew.
A drizzle of good olive oil, a grating of pecorino romano, and the New Year and I are off to a propitious start. A most happy one to all.