Pot luck

New York Times Magazine

For a refugee from a small town, Manhattan always feels like the luckiest place to be on New Year’s Eve. It’s the one night when my consort and I can walk out our front door and into the park at midnight to toast city life in an effervescence of fireworks and Champagne.

The next day, though, my pessimistic roots resurface. I have to have black-eyed peas.

Where I grew up, in a struggling neighborhood in Arizona, we put more faith in chance than Champagne. On New Year’s Day, my family always ate black-eyed peas for good luck, a custom my father had brought with him from Oklahoma. And all of our Mexican neighbors always made menudo, a pungent tripe stew that seemed more logical as a harbinger of good fortune, since it could cure the worst hangover.

Those two food rituals were never anything I would have confessed to as a kid, but I’ve gotten more superstitious with age. I can still skip the menudo, but a New Year’s without black-eyes is harder to contemplate than the morning after without aspirin.

And since moving to New York, I’ve come to realize that my old neighborhood actually was not so odd. Most cultures have a dish or a food they consider lucky, and some have customs that make eating black-eyes seem wise. I’ve heard of people who break out new pillowcases rather than Champagne on New Year’s Eve, or who make sure to be clutching coins at the stroke of midnight, or who guarantee that a black-haired male is the first person to cross the threshold after midnight. (Blondes have more bad luck, I guess.) My only hope is that the first person to walk through my door is hungry. All the good-luck foods I’ve collected give me an excuse to throw an open house on New Year’s afternoon. Because I prefer to cook for a solid week before the shindig, then never think about the table until the last guest staggers out, I’ve converted all my good luck to finger foods that won’t suffer from sitting a few hours at room temperature. That rules out some of the more famous culinary charms, luckily menudo but also Hoppin’ John, the black-eyed-peas-and-rice mixture served in the South, and the heavily sauced cabbage rolls a Hungarian friend swears by. Other dishes just aren’t adaptable to New York tastes: the traditional Scottish black bun would be scorned as fruitcake by another name.

To compensate, I serve black-eyed peas two ways, both with fancy names as a private joke on my poverty past. Marinated for days with jalapenos, scallions and cilantro, they become ”Texas caviar,” a spicy, tangy (if sloppy) dip for round tortilla chips. Mashed and seasoned with pancetta, artichoke hearts and caraway, they can be passed off as ”pate” to be spread on crackers.

Two other Southern lucky foods are just as easy to adapt. Benne seeds, which Northerners know only as the sesame on a bagel, are lucky in both cayenne-spiked cheese wafers that look like gold coins and in crunchy cookies topped with jalapeno jelly. Greens, those Southern staples that symbolize folding money on New Year’s, seem more fortunate in disguise; I combine them with red peppers, pine nuts and two cheeses, Gruyere and Parmesan, in buttery phyllo triangles.

Besides beans, fish is a fairly universal symbol of plenty, but it’s been trickier to convert to my menu. One year, I took the herring I had heard was lucky in Eastern Europe and hid it in roasted new potatoes. It seemed about as welcome as a black cat.

Finally, I had the idea of mixing fish with the beans that Italians and others consider symbols of coins. Mashed with olive oil and flavored with smoked tuna and fresh rosemary, cannellini made a great spread for black bread. (Purists might start both those beans and the black-eyes from scratch, but I’m too busy cooking for that. As far as I can tell, canned beans aren’t any less lucky.) And from the Greeks I’ve stolen the idea of vasilopita, a citrusy cross between a cake and a bread that is decorated with cloves, almonds or raisins to spell out the date of the new year. Traditionally, it is baked with a coin inside to bring extra good luck to the person who finds it. A subway token seems more fitting to New York life, but it gets a good scrubbing first.

With this superstitious spread, Champagne seems a bit too elitist. Instead, we serve a cobbled-up version of Swedish glogg, a lethal combination of akvavit, Port, red wine and spices that varies from year to year. It may not bring good luck, but no one ever seems to care the next day.


2 16-ounce cans black-eyed peas
4 scallions, green parts only, minced
2 to 3 jalapeno peppers, seeded and minced
1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro
1/2 cup corn oil
1/4 cup fresh lime juice
1/4 cup apple cider vinegar
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Round tortilla chips.
1. Drain the peas well, rinse under running water and drain again. Transfer to a bowl. Add the scallions, jalapenos and cilantro and toss to mix. Whisk together the oil, lime juice and vinegar and pour over the beans. Toss to coat. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

2. Transfer to a large glass jar or airtight plastic container. Marinate the mixture for three to five days, turning the jar occasionally to mix the ingredients.

3. To serve, spoon the peas into a shallow glass bowl. Serve with chips for scooping.

Yield: Three cups.


2 bunches fresh young kale or mustard greens, about 1 pound
1 clove garlic, peeled and minced
1/4 cup pine nuts
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium onion, peeled and finely diced
1 medium red bell pepper, cored and finely diced
1/4 cup dry white wine
1/4 teaspoon dried rosemary
1/8 teaspoon cayenne
1 1/2 cups grated Gruyere cheese
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 egg
1 1/2 cups (3 sticks) unsalted butter, melted
1/2 of a 1-pound package of phyllo dough, thawed.

1. Trim the stems and coarse veins off the greens. Rinse the leaves well and spin dry. Chop them finely and set aside with the garlic.

2. Heat the oven to 300 degrees. Spread the pine nuts on a baking sheet and toast until golden brown, shaking occasionally, about five to seven minutes. Cool and chop coarsely. Set aside. Raise the oven temperature to 375 degrees.

3. Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Saute the onion and bell pepper until soft, about five minutes. Raise the heat to medium-high and add the greens, garlic, wine, rosemary and cayenne. Cook, stirring constantly, until the greens are limp and bright green, about five to seven minutes. Transfer to a mixing bowl and cool.

4. Stir in the Gruyere, Parmesan and pine nuts. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Beat the egg lightly and stir it in. Blend well.

5. Butter a large sheet of wax paper. Unwrap the phyllo and remove one sheet, keeping the rest covered with a damp dish towel. Lay the sheet over the buttered paper. Brush thickly with more butter. Top with a second sheet and butter again. With a sharp knife, cut the sheets crosswise into eight strips.

6. Place about a teaspoon of the greens mixture at the bottom of each strip. Fold the strips up flag style to make triangular packets. Place on a buttered baking sheet. Repeat with the remaining phyllo and filling. (Packets can be made to this point and refrigerated until ready to bake.)

7. When ready to bake, brush the packets with melted butter. Bake them for 20 to 25 minutes, until they are crisp and golden brown. Cool slightly before serving.

Yield: About five dozen.


1/2 cup sesame seeds
1/2 cup unsalted butter, softened
2 cups shredded sharp Cheddar cheese
1/2 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
1 cup flour
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper, or to taste
1/2 teaspoon dry mustard
1/2 teaspoon salt.

1. Heat the oven to 350 degrees.

2. Spread the sesame seeds on a baking sheet. Bake them for five minutes, stirring occasionally, until they are toasted golden but not brown. Transfer to a bowl and cool.

3. Using a wooden spoon, beat the butter and cheese together in a bowl until they are well blended. Blend in the Worcestershire sauce. In another bowl, stir together the flour, cayenne, mustard, salt and sesame seeds. Gradually stir into the butter mixture to make a stiff dough, then knead to blend all the ingredients evenly.

4. Pinch off small pieces of dough and roll them into marble-sized balls. Place them about an inch apart on ungreased baking sheets. Flatten with the tines of a fork in a crisscross pattern.

5. Bake them for 12 minutes, or until they are crisp but not brown. Cool on racks. Store in airtight container.

Yield: About five to seven dozen.


1 19-ounce can cannellini beans
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1/4 pound smoked tuna
3 tablespoons finely diced red onion
1 teaspoon finely chopped fresh rosemary
Tabasco to taste
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste.
1. Drain the beans completely. Place in a bowl and add the olive oil. Mash until fairly smooth.

2. Cut the tuna into fine dice. Fold into the beans along with the onion and rosemary. Season to taste with Tabasco, salt and plenty of fresh pepper.

3. Chill at least one hour to allow the flavors to blend. Bring to room temperature before serving, preferably on black bread.

Yield: Two cups.


1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter
1 cup sugar
3 extra-large eggs
Grated rind of 2 large oranges
Grated rind of 2 large lemons
3 cups flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup milk
About 45 whole cloves.

1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Thickly butter a 10-inch round springform pan.

2. In a large bowl of an electric mixer, cream the butter until it is light and fluffy. Beat in the sugar and beat until the mixture is light. Beat in the eggs, one a time, beating well after each addition. Beat in the orange and lemon rinds. 3. In a separate bowl, sift together three cups of the flour, the baking powder and salt.

4. With the mixer on low speed, gradually beat in the dry mixture alternately with the milk. The batter will be very thick. Using a wooden spoon, gradually blend in the remaining flour, beating well until completely smooth. (Press a token or coin into the dough now if you like.)

5. Spread the batter into the pan, smoothing the top. Brush the top evenly with the egg and milk mixture. Press the whole cloves into the top to spell out the date of the new year.

6. Bake for 45 minutes, until golden brown. Cool in the pan for 15 minutes before removing from ring form and slicing.

Yield: One 10-inch cake.


1 bottle akvavit
2 bottles dry red wine
1 bottle ruby Port
5 tablespoons sugar
4 cardamom pods
12 whole cloves
12 allspice berries
1 cinnamon stick
1 cup blanched, slivered almonds
1 cup raisins.

1. Combine the akvavit, wine and Port with the sugar in a stainless-steel pot. Add the cardamom, cloves, allspice and cinnamon stick. Cook over low heat until it begins to steam, stirring to dissolve the sugar, about 10 minutes.

2. To serve, place a few almonds and raisins in individual mugs and pour in the hot glogg.

Yield: About one gallon