Hoppin’ John meets The Godfather

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Today’s recipe combines two of my biggest garden obsessions: cowpeas and Italian heirloom vegetables. I’m sharing my Italian take on a traditional New Year’s Eve dish in the South called “Hoppin’ John.” This recipe is so good, however, that you may want to eat it year-round; I affectionately call it, “Hoppin’ Giovanni.”

Hoppin’ John is a delicious medley of cowpeas, rice, and tomato sauce, eaten to bring luck in the new year. Although many people think of black-eyed peas as the type of cowpea to use for this dish, other cowpea varieties are in keeping with the tradition (and actually far superior, as I’ve discussed before). This year, I grew both Red Bisbee and Pinkeye Purple Hull cowpeas; I prefer the latter cream-colored cowpeas for Hoppin’ John.

Pinkeye purple hull cowpeas look similar to black-eyed peas, but produce a far superior Hoppin' John.

Pinkeye purple hull cowpeas look similar to black-eyed peas, but produce a far superior Hoppin’ John.

Toddlers love to take things apart. The girls love to shell dried cowpeas (Red Bisbee here) - a good thing since we had several 5 gallon buckets full.

Capitalizing on toddlers’ love for taking things apart. The girls love to shell dried cowpeas (Red Bisbee here) – a good thing since we had several 5-gallon buckets full.


You might think Italian and Southern food combinations are a far stretch, but think again. Italians, like many other cultures, also eat legumes for luck in the new year (albeit, lentils). Eager Italians enjoy “cotechino e lenticchie” (fresh pork sausage and lentils) at the beginning of New Year’s Eve celebrations; Southern peas are likewise seasoned with pork, although usually salted pork belly or bacon.

Although I was born in Mississippi, where most every family has their own Hoppin’ John recipe, my first exposure to this dish was in college, at Alfalfa Restaurant in Lexington, Kentucky. Their vegetarian take on Hoppin’ John is incredibly sweet – with basil and hints of marjoram, it has always seemed more Italian than American to me. I came across Alfalfa’s recipe in the Louisville Courier-Journal a few years ago, and I’ve since made a few modifications to take the Italian influence to the extreme.

My first modification shouldn’t scare you, but it might if you’ve ever made risotto before:  I use arborio rather than brown rice. You needn’t prepare arborio rice in the manner for making risotto, which involves standing over the stove, constantly stirring and adding more liquid to the rice as it cooks. I use the boiling water method, which involves cooking rice in boiling water for about 15 minutes and then draining it. The key to this method is to ignore the package directions and use a large volume of generously-salted boiling water (about 4 times the amount of rice). Once the rice is cooked and drained, simply cover the pot with a tea towel to keep it lightly steamed.

Rather than using bacon or salt pork to season my cowpeas, I prefer to use Italian dried meats; for Hoppin’ Giovanni, I use coppa. Traditionally made from pork shoulder taken from right behind the neck of the pig, coppa is infused with red wine, additional seasonings such as clove or nutmeg, and allowed to cure for several months. Coppa is delicious on its own – it’s a common meat on Italian antipasto platters. As a seasoning, coppa adds something magical to cowpeas.

What really completes this Italian transformation is the sauce, however, which includes red wine, basil, and marjoram. Although you can used diced canned tomatoes, I prefer the summer brightness of fresh tomatoes for this sauce. During the winter holidays, I may not have fresh tomatoes, but I at least have frozen-fresh tomatoes from my garden. You’d be surprised at how well summer tomato flavors hold up in the freezer (even though the flesh does not, but that’s okay for sauce). Simply blanch whole tomatoes in boiling water for 30 to 60 seconds and cool immediately – the skins slip right off, and the tomatoes can go directly into storage bags for freezing.

Once the rice, cowpeas, and sauce are prepared, layer them in a shallow bowl. Top with fresh green peppers (or frozen-fresh from your freezer), chopped onion, and freshly grated Italian cheese, such as mozzarella. This dish stands alone as a complete meal, but when I have the time, I grab some Italian heirloom vegetables from the garden; braised rapini and roasted turnips are perfect accompaniments.

Buon appetito!

Hoppin' Giovanni with Roasted Turnips and Braised Rapini

Hoppin’ Giovanni with Roasted Turnips and Braised Rapini


Hoppin’ Giovanni – A Hoppin’ John with an Italian Twist
In keeping with this recipe’s Italian theme, use cipollini onions, if available. In my grocery store, these miniature onion bulbs are found in the specialty produce section (next to the garlic, ginger root, and shallots).
Recipe type: Main

  • 2 cups Arborio or brown rice, prepared to package directions
  • For the field peas:
  • 1 lb cowpeas, soaked for at least 4 hours
  • 1 3 oz package coppa, chopped (Busetto Foods brand is gluten free)
  • 2 cipollini onions (or ¼ cup sweet white onion), diced
  • Extra-virgin olive oil
  • For the sauce:
  • 4 cups peeled and chopped tomatoes
  • 1 heaping tablespoon fresh basil
  • ½ tablespoon dried ground marjoram
  • ¼ cup red wine
  • 1 tbsp sorghum
  • salt and pepper, to taste
  • Toppings:
  • Mozzarella or Goat Gouda, freshly grated
  • Green Pepper, chopped
  • Cipollini or other sweet white onion, diced

  1. Heat a heavy-bottomed pot over a medium-high burner. Add about 2 tablespoons of olive oil, coppa, and onion; sauté until onions soften and become translucent.
  2. Add cowpeas and just enough water to cover well. Bring to a boil, then cover and reduce heat. Simmer for about 1 hour, or until cowpeas reach desired tenderness.
  3. While cowpeas are cooking, begin prepping sauce by simmering tomatoes. Reduce volume to about 3 cups, then add herbs, wine, sorghum, and spices; simmer.
  4. Prepare arborio rice using the boiling water method. Boil 8 cups of generously-salted water, add rice, cover, and cook for ~15 minutes. Drain water and cover pot with a tea towel to further steam the rice.
  5. Prepare dish by layering rice, cowpeas, and sauce. Add toppings to taste and serve hot.



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