Monday, January 01, 2007

Beans, greens and (zam)pone

Happy New Year! This was the year that no one made plans...and me last of all. Luckily, my downstairs neighbor Amy and her pals knew of a party to go to, and so the four of us headed out to get a cheap (as in, not one of those $75 frilly prix-fixe deals. I don't begrudge restaurant owners the chance to make some moola, but I would add NYE to Valentine's Day as my two least-likely days to go out to eat as a result of those annoying, overpriced set menus) bite at Pete's Ale House, our Atlantic Ave chili-and-beer stalwart. Except that, at 8:30pm on New Year's Eve, they were closed. Huh? According to the guy pulling down the metal grille, they were going to be open on New Year's Day instead, presumably to pick up the more docile hair-of-the-dog/football-bowl crowd.

So instead, we hustled down to Bocca Lupa, at Henry and Warren, where there was an empty four-top table just waiting for us. On the menu was zampone, the ubiquitous New Year's dish in Bologna and Modena--a whole pig's foot deboned but skin intact, plumped out with sausage, boiled, and served with lentils. The lentils I can understand, since many cultures go with coin-shaped beans to symbolize prosperity in the new year, but I never found out the significance of the pig's foot, except that the Bolognese love their pork products dearly, and there is little of the pig that doesn't find its way onto the table in some form.

But I didn't eat zampone in Bologna, and I didn't eat it in Brooklyn either. Instead, we had tender little meatballs in tomato sauce over bread, fabulous lamb chops over grilled radicchio, panini oozing mozzarella and pesto, green salad with pomegranate seeds and pecorino cheese, a platter of affetati (cured meats), gorgeous grilled artichoke with toasted hazelnuts, a pile of fresh berries with whipped cream, and a warm Nutella-and-banana panini with a similar polar ice cap of whipped cream. And a round of prosecco bought for us by a guy at the bar because we were a cute and/or happy table, followed by another round of prosecco to toast the countdown from Times Square on the TV over the bar.

Then, over to a party in a converted garage/loft in Park Slope, where all the guests picked up brushes and snipped out old magazine pictures to add to the evolving mural/collage on the wall. Me? I painted a green and red pomegranate.

Getting a cab in the rain at 2:30am was just as much fun as you can imagine. Up in the morning on a misty, gloomy day, to shred greens, soak black-eyed peas, and sizzle up a couple spoonfuls of lard in my black cast iron skillet for cornbread. Greens for folding money, black eyed peas for coins, and cornbread for gold. Usually this is a vegetarian meal, since I never have a ham bone lying around to go in the peas, but this time I snagged a big chunk of bone-in smoked ham from the nice folks at Flying Pigs Farm. So ham, onions, celery, garlic, and bell pepper were sauteed, then the soaked peas were thrown in with some water. Too much water, as it happened, so use less than you think, since the peas don't soak up as much water as other beans. Some thyme, some sage leaves if you have them around, a couple little dried red peppers or some red cayenne pepper. It doesn't take long to simmer to tenderness. Rice can be added to the peas and cooked in the same pot (a good way to solve the extra-liquid problem) or cooked in a separate pot and the peas spooned over the rice at serving time.

However you make the peas, you have to have greens. Now, I'm definitely on lefty-progressive-California end of the greens-cooking spectrum. I'll admit it: I don't have any sentimental attachment to swampy olive-drab greens cooked to rags. I adore the minerally sweetness of good fresh greens after a frost (especially collards and bumpy lacinto/black Tuscan/dino kale), and so chez PQ they get cooked just enough so they don't chew like a plastic raincoat on your plate.

After a thorough washing, cut the tough rib out of each leaf, roll the leaves up in a cigar and chiffonade them into slim slices. Throw your big mound of greens into an inch or so of salted boiling water in a big skillet, slap on a cover and let the greens steam for five to 8 minutes, with occasional stirring, until they've collapsed and lost their rubbery texture but still retain a little bit of toothsome chew. You can eat them straight out of the pot with your fingers, as I do when I'm alone, or you can scoop them out to cool, grate up some lemon rind, saute some chopped garlic in olive oil until it's just golden, then throw the greens, lemon rind, and red pepper flakes back into the pan to heat through. Squeeze on some fresh lemon juice just before serving. The leftovers, if you have any, are good cold too, although the acidity of the lemon juice will turn them a sludgy khaki color.

Finally, of course, there is cornbread, made with straight-up stone-ground cornmeal and buttermilk and "no cookie ingredients"--that is, no sugar, no flour, but a couple tablespoons of lard from the freezer into the pan to grease it up, plus a little of the butter that melted sitting on the radiator after breakfast. A really hot, heavy pan will give you the good crust you need.

All the best for you and yours. A good year to come, this one.

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