Hoppin' John is a traditional New Year's Day dish among Southerners, eaten on that day to bring luck in the new year. It is thought to have evolved from a Northern African dish, taking on more or less its present form--black-eyed peas, rice, and ham hocks or other smoked meat--from the slaves who prepared the dish.
In honor of the new year, I bring you black-eyed peas in a completely different, but still African, form. Akara is a dish popular in western and central Africa. We like these fritters as a main dish, with sauteed greens and perhaps sweet potatoes on the side, but they would make excellent appetizers as well. If you want to get fancy, you could serve these with a homemade spicy dipping sauce, but we find that mustard or Dijon-style mustard suits us fine. Some like these with seafood cocktail sauce, ketchup, or salsa. Any way you serve them, akara are wonderful.
The peas need to be soaked overnight. For reasons that will become obvious, you can't use the stovetop "quick soak" method. So plan ahead, but don't let the necessity of forethought stop you from trying these. You do need a food processor for this recipe, although it might be doable in a blender.
You may add some cayenne pepper if you want a spicy version, or do as I do and add a jalapeno pepper or two, chopped into two or three pieces, to the food processor when you process the beans.
2 cups black-eyed peas
1 medium onion, chopped
4 or 5 T. water
1 tsp. salt (or more, to taste)
black pepper to taste
peanut or canola oil for frying (palm oil was traditionally used)
Soak the peas overnight, or for about 16 hours, in cold water. Drain the peas and place them in a large bowl. Rub the peas between your hands so that the pea skins loosen and fall off. Fill the bowl with more water. Many of the skins will float. You can either pour off the water and the loose skins, being careful not to pour out the beans, or you can use a sieve or slotted spoon to skim off the skins. I usually pour, refilling the bowl and pouring several times, giving the peas a quick swish with my fingers before pouring. I don't find that the skins always float as they should, so this method is the one I think works best. You may think differently, so try both methods.
Drain the beans well. Place them with the onions, salt, pepper, and, if desired, cayenne or jalapeno in a food processor. Scrape down the sides of the work bowl as necessary and process until you have a grainy paste. Continue to process while you slowly add water until the mixture is one that will fall easily from a spoon without being too runny. It should look light and airy but still grainy. You're going to fry these, so keep in mind what kind of "body" the paste will need for that.
Put about an inch of oil in a deep skillet and heat it until it's very hot (I test by dropping a minute amount of paste in and seeing if it starts to sizzle immediately). Working quickly, give the mixture a stir and drop a tablespoon of the batter into the skillet. Repeat until the pan is full. Fry for about a minute at medium heat, turning them over as they darken, and then turn the heat to low. Continue to fry for another 6 minutes or so, turning now and then.
When you have fritters that are a reddish-brown color and are cooked through--they will feel firm--remove them with a slotted spoon and drain on paper towels.
Turn the heat under the frying pan back up and let the oil become very hot again. Give the batter a stir, and repeat the process outlined above. Do this until you've used up all the batter.
Serve with or without a dip or condiment of your choice. If you have leftovers, place them in a closed container in the fridge, and tomorrow you can eat them in a pita like falafels, if you want. Just heat them up a bit in the microwave, and don't forget the lettuce, tomatoes, and tahini or yogurt sauce!