Here in the North, there are certain foods folks think of when Southern cooking comes to mind, and many of them are truly iconic American edibles – fried chicken, biscuits, grits, peach cobbler, gumbo, collard greens, fried green tomatoes, okra, and such – but the view onto the Southern table is perhaps a bit muddled from this far away. It’s true that all of those foods are big players in the world of Southern eating. It’s also true that two of the most important Southern foods are almost never mentioned when Southern eats are discussed in the North, and those are peas and rice. Certainly in the coastal regions of the Carolinas, Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana, together with parts of Arkansas, we couldn’t even begin to discuss how Southerners eat without starting on rice and peas.
I’ve always been a big fan of hoppin’ john, but never really got too close to serving it at Big Jones because I was holding out for something similar, the peas and rice dish, but something more unique and interesting, and spent a lot of time exploring pea options, which are sparse here in the north but significantly more abundant in the south. When Anson Mills came up with sea island red peas I was hooked. They have a fantastic, smoky aroma and taste that melds beautifully with pork, but since they have a flavor almost reminiscent of bacon themselves, I thought they’d be an excellent vehicle for a vegetarian dish.
Reezy-peezy is often attributed to Italian rice farmers, and there is in fact a time-honored Venetian dish called risi-pisi, and while it is a bit difficult to answer the chicken & egg question in this regard, there can be no question that the peas are of African origin and that ultimately it was Africans who built the Lowcountry’s epic rice-growing system. This dish belongs to the Gullah and Geechee.
I’ve laid bare my interest in slave kitchen cooking over the last year or so, from my reflections over a trip to Charleston, to how we should celebrate New Year’s, and how I select a menu for a very special once-a-year Slow Food dinner. In a timeless Gullah dish called reezy-peezy (peas and rice,) paired with Carolina gold rice, we could eat the exact same dish from the same heritage crops eaten for hundreds of years, and the simple act of cooking these fussy old crops can be profoundly grounding and connect us to our ancestors through the senses that best transcend time as they make up our most enduring memories – smell and taste.
This dish, reezy-peezy, makes me think of my favorite quote from the French Laundry Cookbook, one that TK’s old mentor, Roland Henin impressed upon him – “If you’re a really good cook, you can go back in time.” That statement covers a lot of territory, and I think TK took it differently than I did, but there is a mutual understanding – great cooking’s not about what’s easy, or shortcuts. This dish is actually very, very simple to prepare, but pulling the ingredients together is another matter entirely. The end result, after going through the steps of acquiring beautiful, impeccably fresh produce to accompany the peas and rice, stoking the wood fire and grilling the vegetables while basting them with olive oil or butter, is phenomenal. Finally, I have a rootsy slave kitchen dish that sells like hot cakes, and boy is it good.
We are able to go back in time on a plate – 18th-century heirloom peas and rice grown organically in the same soil as their ancestral crops, the kiss of a wood flame, and heirloom vegetable crops much like would have been enjoyed back in the day. Our connection to the past is through flavor, aroma, and cooking medium – a wood fire. What I really love about this dish is how beautifully simple it is, and how it relates to my own cherished dishes of childhood – when you’re poor, you eat simply and if you want to eat well, you eat close to the land. My mom used to make an old German farmhouse dish that could easily have been the same but for the difference in geography – that dish was called beans and knoepfles, and was northern beans cooked into a gravy and served with wheat flour dumplings – wheat flour being the rice of the north. Beans and rice, peas and rice, nutritional stalwarts of the poor. Since all food is cultural and since I grew up in a frugal farming family of modest means, this is some of the most delicious food in the world to me. Foie gras may be a luxury and it truly is delicious, but peas and rice is how we make our bones. It’s how we have survived to tell these stories today.
A couple of notes on ingredients – you’ll have a really hard time pulling this dish off without seeing our friends at Anson Mills for the sea island red peas, and also the rice we use for the dish – not the Carolina gold we’ve used for previous incarnations of this dish (although they are a great source for that as well,) but for laurel-aged Charleston gold rice. This is honestly a bit of a stretch, as this would have been too expensive to have been rationed to the slaves, but it’s such an interesting and delicious rice with a heady, perfumed aroma that both stands up to and mixes beautifully with the flavor of the wood grill on vegetables. Finally, the photo at the top of the page reflects the dish as we were serving it in May, so the vegetables listed in the recipe will be different, to reflect the market in early August.
Finally, even though the price tag of $18 for this dish seems modest to most of our regular customers and it is a steal considering the prices we pay and lengths we go to for this dish, I’ll repeat a common theme recently – that this is a crap ton of money for one meal to almost everyone alive on earth today. Isn’t it ironic that that to eat simply prepared, beautiful vegetables and grains from local soils isn’t dirt cheap? If you could take the time to grow everything as my grandparents did, it would be free but for the labor. Unfortunately for those of us without farmland and the means to grow, the crop subsidies favor California for vegetables and various other states for grains, but our public policy doesn’t bestow financial assistance on small scale, organic growers. So, we pay more to eat what was affordable and cheap to our great grandparents as the priorities of our larger culture have changed.
So, we have Reezy-Peezy. The ca. 1730 refers to a time frame in which you could also have acquired these ingredients when they were in cultivation in the Lowcountry a long, long time ago. The peas are cooked into a gravy most similar to what would have been enjoyed then, the rice is formed into a cake, or panisse, that can be cut and held under refrigeration, and cooked on the wood grill with the vegetables. We baste the vegetables on the grill with clarified butter, or olive oil on request for guests who wish to eat vegan. The chow-chow accompaniment can be made well in advance – in fact at least a week is needed for the pickle to take properly, the panisse can be made up to three days in advance, the same goes with the pea gravy. The vegetables should be bought at market and cooked very soon after, so plan the pickle, rice panisse, and pea gravy preparation around your next trip to the market. We use organic king trumpet mushrooms, but you should feel free to use any thick, meaty mushroom you like.
This recipe serves about twelve, so throw a party. If you invite good friends, they can help with the prep.
Laurel-aged Charleston Gold Rice Panisse
- 1 Tablespoon corn oil
- 1/2 cup minced shallot
- 4 cups Laurel-aged Charleston gold rice
- 6 cups water
- 1-1/2 teaspoons salt
- 1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
In a medium saucepan with tight-fitting lid, saute the shallots in the corn oil to sweat. Add remaining ingredients and cover. Bring to a boil and reduce heat to simmer. Cook until rice is tender and easily fluffed with a fork, about 20 minutes. While the rice is still hot, turn into a bowl and beat with a heavy wooden spoon until it forms a sticky ball. Turn out into a well-oiled cookie sheet and shape into a flat raft about 3/4 inch thick. Cover tightly with plastic wrap, cool to room temperature for an hour, then refrigerate at least six hours before cutting. Cut into 3″x3″ squares for the grill and reserve.
Sea Island Red Peas (Vegetarian version)
- 1 Tablespoon corn oil
- 2 cups yellow onion, finely chopped
- 1/2 cup celery, finely chopped
- 1/2 green bell pepper, finely chopped
- 1 small jalapeno, seeded and chopped
- 3 cloves garlic, chopped
- 1 pound sea island red peas, dried
- 4 or more cups mushroom stock. Once peas swell, keep them just covered
- 2-3 bay leaves
- 1-2 teaspoons fresh thyme leaves, to taste
- 1 Tablespoon salt, or more to taste
In a 2 quart saucepan, heat corn oil just until smoking. Add onion, celery, bell pepper, garlic, and jalapeno. Saute 6-8 minutes, to sweat and just begin browning. Add peas, stock, and bay leaves and bring to a low boil. Reduce heat and simmer until peas are creamy and not starchy, 10-20 minutes depending on how late the peas are in the season. Add thyme and salt. Remove 1/3 of peas and puree in a blender until thoroughly creamed, then return to pan and combine thoroughly. Correct seasoning.
- 1/2 cup kosher salt
- 2 quarts water
- 2 cups matchstick-cut green bell pepper, sweet wax peppers, or poblanos if you like it spicier
- 2 cups matchstick-cut red bell pepper or pimientos
- 2quarts shredded green cabbage
- 1 cup matchstick-cut yellow onion
- 1 quart white vinegar
- 1 cup water
- 1 tablespoon kosher salt
- 1 cup turbinado sugar
- 1 tablespoon whole allspice, crushed
- 1 tablespoon celery seed
- 1 cinnamon stick
- 1 tablespoon crushed coriander seed
- 2 tablespoons shredded fresh ginger
- 1 tablespoon crushed red pepper
Brine the vegetables: Stir the water and salt together until the salt has dissolved salt. Place the vegetables in a container and cover with brine. Cover, label, date and refrigerate for 4 hours or overnight.
Make the pickling liquid: Place all ingredients in a 1-gallon nonreactive stockpot and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to a simmer and infuse for 15 minutes. Strain the liquid and return to pot, and return to a boil.
Pickle: In the meantime, drain the vegetables, discard the brine, and place the vegetables in a 1-gallon container with a tight-fitting lid. Carefully pour the boiling brine over the vegetables and cover tightly immediately. Let cool to room temperature (3 hours). Label, date, and refrigerate. The chow chow will be tasty after one day, best after a week, and will keep, tightly covered and refrigerated, up to 6 months. Makes about 3 quarts.
To Prepare for Service, per plate:
- 1 king trumpet mushroom, split lengthwise
- 1 baby zucchini, crookneck or patty pan squash, split
- 1 small tropea or knob onion, with green top
- 1 small pimiento or frying pepper such as shisito, melrose, or Jimmy Nardello’s
- 1 plank broccoli, cauliflower, or romanesco, cut into 1/2″ steak
- 1 rice panisse
- clarified butter or olive oil, for basting
- kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
- 3/4 cup sea island red peas, heated in a separate pan
Wash all vegetables thoroughly and gently pat dry. Lay in a clean tray, along with the rice panisse, while you prepare your grill. You can use gas, charcoal, or if possible the best is hickory, pecan, or fruit wood. Brush vegetables and panisse with butter or olive oil, sprinkle liberally with salt and pepper, and grill to your taste, turning every couple of minutes and basting. Heat the sea island peas in a separate small saucepan. Plate as you wish, using the pea gravy either as a canvas or as a drapery. Garnish with chow-chow, and green onions or fresh herbs as you like. Drizzle with olive oil or extra virgin corn oil and serve.