After all the fuss and bother of Christmas, New Year's ought to be simple.
The Southern tradition is to serve humble foods like collard greens and black-eyed peas to ensure luck and prosperity in the coming year. Such basic foods should ensure an easy day of cooking, too.
So why is it so complicated? Walk through supermarkets and there are so many decisions. Dried black-eyed peas or fresh? Fresh collards or frozen?
And would my ancestors rise up and smite me for using anything from a can?
But sometimes shortcuts aren't a bad thing. Sometimes they're even the best option.
For instance, fresh sounds best. But fresh black-eyed peas aren't in season. If you look carefully at the label on fresh black-eyed peas in the produce department, they're actually rehydrated. In my experience, they taste sour and have a gray appearance after they're cooked.
Nathalie Dupree, the Charleston-based cooking expert who recently finished a monumental new cookbook, Mastering the Art of Southern Cooking, with co-author Cynthia Graubart, has an order of preference on field peas:
Fresh if someone shelled them. Home-frozen. Commercially frozen. Canned, drained and well-seasoned to mask the canned taste.
Frozen collards can be acceptable for long-cooking dishes, she said.
I would do something else rather than use canned collards.
But there is a great option on collards, said Atlanta-based cookbook author Virginia Willis: Pre-shredded collards.
I will freely admit that I buy already chopped-up ones, she said. I eat greens four or five times a week.
Triple-washed and chopped, pre-shredded collards cook fast because they're in smaller pieces. We found Nature's Greens in the produce section at a Super Wal-Mart, in a 2-pound bag for $3.96. And the bag held at least twice as much as we got after trimming and cutting a 2-pound bundle that cost $1.99 at another supermarket.
Of course, everyone has to decide where to draw the line on convenience. We're willing to dress up cornbread mix. Is that evil?
Yes, Willis declared. Usually, Jiffy is too sweet. And I like old-fashioned cornbread, made from stone-ground cornmeal, buttermilk and eggs.
We agreed on this, though: It's better to take a shortcut than to risk not eating collards and black-eyed peas on New Year's.
I missed it once and it was truly the worst year of my life, said Willis. I'm never not doing it again.
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