Though black-eyed peas have been around forever, they generally don’t get a lot of attention. But I think you really ought to give them a second look.
These peas — which really are a bean — originated in Africa and found their way to ancient India and Asia thousands of years ago. As early as the 5th century people were eating them for good luck on New Year’s Eve. But they didn’t make their way to America until the 18th century, a product of the slave trade.
It was during the Civil War that black-eyed peas became a staple of the Southern diet, as well as token of good luck in the new year in that part of the country. The story goes that as the Union army stormed through the South appropriating crops and livestock as provisions, they turned up their collective nose at black-eyed peas. The troops in blue considered them mere “field peas,” fit for livestock, not people.
In this way, black-eyed peas, paired up with greens, became a dietary staple of the surviving Confederates.
This was, in fact, a stroke of singular good luck. Black-eyed peas are super-nutritious — high in potassium, iron and fiber, and a terrific source of protein. Pair them with greens and you’re looking at an incredibly healthful dish. On New Year’s Eve in the American South, each of those ingredients takes on symbolic value: the peas are coins, the greens are bills. Put some cornbread on the side and you’ve got gold, too.
This recipe is a mash-up not only of a traditional favorite from the American South, but also of one from the Middle East. I’m talking about falafel.
As a New Yorker, I’ve been eating at falafel stands throughout the city my whole life. Typically, the dish is based on ground chickpeas (or sometimes fava beans), combined with tahini (sesame seed paste), and served with a garlicky lemon sauce. Jam these delicious little deep-fried nuggets into a pita with some shredded lettuce and heaven is just a bite away.
My falafel are not deep-fried, but you’re not going to miss it. I create the crust we crave by coating the falafel with panko breadcrumbs, then sauteing them. And I don’t puree all of the peas. I hold some back, then add them to the batter for texture later. I made each falafel “mini” for entertaining purposes, then top them with a light, spicy garlic mayo instead of the usual tahini sauce. The finishing touch is chopped scallions, my nod to the greens part of the original good luck dish.
And, naturally enough, I believe that no matter how or where you celebrate the New Year, this tasty little hybrid will contribute not only to your good luck, but your good health and happiness, too.