Good luck with that: More than just nutrition might be riding on what you eat to start the New Year

On New Year's Day, if you live in Pittsburgh or the surrounding area, you may be starting your morning with a sweet, glazed pretzel. Later in the day or perhaps at the stroke of midnight on the New Year, according to Pennsylvania Dutch and German tradition, you might be digging into a sumptuous dish of pork and sauerkraut.

If you live in the South, or your people came from there, Hoppin' John (black-eyed peas simmered with fatback or cured pork and fluffy rice) or a mess of greens -- or both -- might grace your dinner table.

If you live in Japan, you might enjoy kazunoko, a golden-yellow salted herring roe, symbolizing fertility, sometimes served with shaved bonito flakes, or with salted black beans and candied dried fish.

If you are of Mexican heritage, just after midnight on Año Nuevo it is the custom to consume 12 grapes. "One for every month," explains Mexican-born New York restaurateur Barbara Sibley. "To bring prosperity and wishes for the coming year." The color you wear that day has symbolism, as well, she said. "Red is a wish for love, yellow for prosperity, but some believe it is the color of your underclothes that matters."

Where to find Good Luck Pretzels

Please phone the bakeries ahead of time to make sure they'll have the pretzels, or to place a special order.

Kribel's Bakery, 546 Brookline Blvd., 412-531-1944, 28 Old Clairton Rd., Pleasant Hills, 412-653-1717 and 1155 Washington Pike, Bridgeville, 412-220-9548; Available starting this week. Two doughs, sweet and Danish, 3 sizes and many different fillings, including poppy, pineapple, apricot and cherry-nut.

H D Dudt Bakery, 11010 Perry Highway, Wexford, 724-935-4030. "Everybody buys them," said owner Denny Cobaugh. They have pretzels with a plain sweet dough, plain with raisins and, most popular, Danish dough with walnut filling. Available right after Christmas.

Lincoln Bakery, 543 Lincoln Ave., Bellevue, 412-766-0954. Available right after Christmas; special orders are advised. "We sell over 1,000 pretzels," said owner Joe Porco. Two different doughs, sweet or Danish with cinnamon-sugar in center, both glazed with fondant. Three sizes, small, serves about 10; medium, serves 20 to 25; large, "big as a full sheet cake," serves 40 to 50.

Priory Fine Pastries, 528 E. Ohio St., North Side, 412-321-7270 and in the Cardello Building, 1501 Reedsdale St., North Side, 412-321-2570. Pretzels will be available New Year's Eve. They make one with nuts and one without, both glazed, "and when they're gone, they're gone."

Party Cake Shop, 706 Brookline Blvd., 412-531-5322 and 297 Beverly Road, Mt. Lebanon, 412-343-0101; The pretzels will be available just prior to Christmas. Choices include sweet dough, sweet filled dough and Danish dough with almond filling.

Prantl's Bakery, 5525 Walnut St., Shadyside, 412-621-2092 and 438 Market St., Market Square, Downtown, 412-471-6861; "Oh yes, we have them. We've been making them as long as anyone can remember," said bakery co-owner Lara Bruhn. Available Dec. 28-31. Three different sizes (small, medium and "humongous"), and two types: Danish with an orange glaze and nut-filled with icing.

Schoor Bakery, 3912 Perrysville Ave., North Side, 412-321-7568 and 433 Perry Hwy., West View, 412-931-0653. Susan Pace, who works in the bakery, said, "Oh absolutely, they're a must-have!" They have 2 types of dough; one like a bread dough, the other a sweeter Danish dough. Available the week before New Year's; call ahead for big orders.

Jan. 1 is one of the busiest days at La Palapa, Ms. Sibley's Manhattan restaurant. The Menu de la Cruda (Hangover Specials) brunch is available all day. Those suffering are encouraged to begin the meal with a michelada (fiery beer cocktail) or sangria and a shot of tequila.

Brazilians don white clothing on New Year's Day because it brings peace, said Leticia Moreinos Schwartz, author of "The Brazilian Kitchen: 100 Classic and Contemporary Recipes for the Home Cook." She also mentioned eating grapes, but seven instead of 12. Pomegranates are eaten, as well, "to bring us money," she said.

A Haitian tradition is to eat a rich pumpkin soup, containing either cubes of beef or beef bones. During the French occupation, Haitian slaves prepared this soup for the French but were not allowed to eat it themselves. Now, Jan. 1 is Haitian Independence Day and the soup is shared with friends and neighbors.

Every country, each nationality seems to have a food or group of foods and often a special symbolic dish to celebrate the New Year. Think of them as wishes: for good health, for a prosperous year, a favorable harvest, a wish for love, for children, for shelter, for harmony -- for peace.

Shape matters. Consider the twists of the Good Luck Pretzel, a large pretzel eaten in Germany on New Year's Day. In America, the New Year's pretzel seems to be pretty local to Pittsburgh, where many Germans settled. According to Leslie Kribel, owner of Brookline's Kribel's Bakery, where they've been making them since 1931, "The pretzels are a blessing and a tradition. In Germany, priests gave pretzels to little kids when they got their lessons right." As a good luck symbol, on New Year's Day, the children wore them around their necks.

Dried beans and peas are often the fare on New Year's Day; their round shape is thought to symbolize coins. In parts of Italy, people enjoy a hearty dish of lentils with coin-like slices of cotechino, a pork sausage. In the South, the black-eyed peas of Hoppin' John have multiple meanings, but according to the late Bill Neal, one ate them to insure you had "plenty of pocket change."

"Southerners may make resolutions for the New Year," he wrote in "Bill Neal's Southern Cooking," "but they know success (or lack of it) depends more on what is eaten on 1 January than on all the good intentions in the world. More black-eyed peas and collards are consumed on that day than any other time of the year -- part of an antique gastronomic insurance policy."

According to Nathalie Dupree in "New Southern Cooking," "The black-eyed peas are said to represent each Southern soldier who died for the South during the War Between the States."

"I've heard that the eyes of the peas are considered a bit magical, in many countries including the [continent] of origin, Africa," said Marcie Cohen Ferris, author of "Matzo Ball Gumbo." "There's power in the peas!" Another source wrote that children hopped around the table when the dish came out of the kitchen.

The Lee Brothers, whose recipe I have used here, wrote, "We are thrilled that we don't need to know how the dish got its name to love the way the flavors come together in it . . . We get excited about Hoppin' John all year long."

Eating greens is a New Year's Southern tradition because of their resemblance to money. Bill Neal said collards were eaten "for a steady supply of folding green in the coming year." The theme is common to many cultures. Besides, greens are good for you and taste great, so eating them is at least a safe bet you'll have good health. In Western Pennsylvania, the "greens" part of the lucky meal is often sauerkraut -- perhaps because there were few fresh vegetables at that time of year, and certainly because it goes so well with pork.

Pork could be considered the king of good-luck foods. It's part of many New Year's Day meals, from roasts to ham, hocks to sausages. In some parts of Germany, little pigs made of marzipan are given as good luck presents New Year's Day. Marzipan pigs may decorate holiday tables in Austria, where suckling pig is served for the evening's celebratory meal. The symbolism, according to the "Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America" by Andrew F. Smith, is "the pig roots forward into the future." In a similar notion, chicken and turkey are avoided on New Year's Day because they bury their pasts "by scratching backward in the dirt."

Other New Years

The Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah (Head of the Year), of course, does not involve pork. It is celebrated at a different time of year, generally early fall. Slices of apple, dipped in or drizzled with honey, and round loaves of challah, studded with dried fruit and served with honey, are some of the holiday's symbols, to promote a sweet New Year.

Chinese New Year also is celebrated at a different time of year, generally late January or early February. According to Grace Young, author of "The Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen," the dish most associated with that day is jai (also called Buddha's Delight). A vegetarian dish, it's full of symbolic foods, traditionally containing 18 ingredients. Each has meaning, "with wishes for more children in the coming year, to blessings and wealth for the household."

Fishing for luck

Fish traditionally are served New Year's Day, often with the head intact. Germans eat carp, and might tuck one of the large scales into their wallets, like a lucky coin. Fish swim forward, symbolizing progress (some avoid eating lobster on this day because they move backward). Scandinavians, Germans and Eastern Europeans have the custom of eating herring on New Year's Day. Herring, which swim quickly though cold waters, were plentiful and once a large part of the diet. Since herrings were smoked or otherwise preserved, they kept well.

A good-luck platter

Speaking of reveling in icy oceans, Annie Hauck-Lawson, president of the Association for Food and Society and co-editor of "Gastropolis: Food and New York City," begins New Year's Day with a bracing Polar Bear plunge into the ocean at Coney Island with her family. Then it's off to Mom's house for their traditional meal. On a large rose-pink sectioned vintage-glass platter, she arranges "all the good luck foods for New Year's Day."

It begins with sauerkraut, often cured by her 18-year-old daughter, Alana. In 2001, at age 9, Alana started "krauting," after learning about her grandmother's inventive kapusta tradition:

"She would wash a 6-year-old, dress him in clean underwear, promise him candy, and have him run on top of the cabbage barrel to smash the kraut. Then he got candy."

Also on the platter is a cooked dark green: kale, collards or cabbage simmered with onions and broth or broccoli rabe, with garlic and olive oil. Then, "representing coins, deep-purple, luscious, meaty Alfonso olives. Plus herring, all the varieties: Matjes, pickled, herring in cream, herring in wine, whole herring, which my mother taught me how to fillet."

The rest of the meal is often pork with kraut, adding some fresh cabbage to keep it from being too salty (a tip I used in my accompanying recipe). Always served with mashed potatoes.

"Food has the capacity to hold meaning," said Ms. Hauck-Lawson, as she remembered that in 1988, when her father was ailing, she was able to get him to eat a bit of all these good luck foods.

A sweet start

Some sweets, especially those with coins buried inside, are traditional on New Year's Day. Greek families enjoy Vasilopeta, or cake for St. Basil's Day, a holiday also celebrated Jan. 1. Some eat doughnuts or fritters. Swedes and Norwegians might tuck an almond into rice pudding, promising good luck to the recipient.

Lady luck

Local casinos are hoping to promote luck and good fortune. Two of the area's gambling venues are cooking something special for New Year's Day. Rivers Casino Executive Chef Richard Marmion hails from Sharon, and his mother, like many, prepares a traditional New Year dish of pork and sauerkraut.

At the casino's casual restaurants and buffet, he offers pork and kielbasa with kraut. Kielbasa also will be featured at a tailgate party outside the casino, in conjunction with the Penguins' Winter Classic game at Heinz Field. If you don't have tickets to the game, you can watch it on the big screen at the casino's Wheelhouse Bar & Grill. For fine dining, Andrew's Steak & Seafood will showcase the chef's Bacon-Wrapped Pork Tenderloin with Braised Red Cabbage, a dish he shared with us.

Beginning New Year's Day, Wheeling Island Hotel-Casino-Racetrack is offering a whole month of "lucky meals," playing off the auspicious, delicious match of pork and sauerkraut. At the Islander Buffet, they'll be serving kielbasa and kraut.

Executive Chef Chris Matta hails from Pittsburgh. "My family always ate pork and sauerkraut on New Year's Day, to start the year off with a little luck," he said. His kitchen staff is from the Tri-State area, and he often pumps them for family recipes.

The Breezeway Cafe will offer pork and sauerkraut with grilled peppers. At their fine-dining restaurant, the Pointe Steakhouse, the lucky choice dinner is a Double-Loin Pork Chop with Fall Root Vegetables.

"We served some of these dishes last year," Chef Matta said. "People enjoyed them."

It's unclear, however, whether it helped them out in the casino.

Whatever you are planning for New Year's Day, we send our best wishes for health, happiness and good fortune. And don't forget your New Year's Day Good Luck Pretzel.

Bacon-Wrapped Pork Tenderloin with Port-Wine Sauce and Braised Red Cabbage

PG tested

Rivers Casino chef Richard Marmion will be serving this lucky New Year's Day dish at Andrew's Steak & Seafood. For the moistest, most flavorful meat, please don't overcook the pork, he cautions. It's fine a little pink in the center. This special recipe takes a bit of work but makes a festive meal for 2 or 3, maybe with a couple slices left over. Prepare the cabbage first and leave it covered. Reheat if needed before serving; that way you can concentrate on the pork.

-- Miriam Rubin

  • One 1-pound pork tenderloin, silver skin trimmed
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 4 to 5 slices applewood-smoked bacon
  • 3 large branches fresh thyme
  • 4 garlic cloves, peeled and smashed with flat side of chef's knife
  • 2 tablespoons chicken broth
  • 1 cup port wine
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature

Season pork with salt and pepper. Wrap in overlapping slices of bacon to cover completely. Secure bacon with toothpicks. Place on rimmed baking sheet.

Broil 3 to 4 inches from heat, about 12 minutes, without turning, until bacon starts to color and render fat. Remove from heat. Turn oven to 400 degrees.

Put thyme and garlic in center of shallow roasting pan. Place tenderloin on top; scrape any pan drippings from pan over. Add broth to pan. Roast 10 to 15 minutes, until instant-read thermometer inserted in thickest part registers 145 to 150 degrees. Transfer roast to warm platter; cover loosely with foil.

Pour port wine into roasting pan; stir to get up browned bits. Scrape garlic, thyme sprigs and juices into small heavy saucepan or skillet. Bring to boil over high heat. Reduce heat to medium and simmer until juices are nearly syrupy and reduced by 3/4, about 10 minutes. Strain into a cup, then return to saucepan over medium-low heat. Whisk in butter, a small piece at a time, whisking until sauce is thickened. Pour any juices from pork platter into sauce; warm lightly.

Carve pork into coins and serve with sauce and Braised Red Cabbage (recipe follows).

Makes about 3 servings and 1/4 cup sauce.

-- Chef Richard Marmion, Rivers Casino

Braised Red Cabbage

PG tested

  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 1/2 large red cabbage, cored and coarsely shredded (about 7 cups)
  • 1 tablespoon granulated sugar
  • 3/4 teaspoon kosher salt
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • 1/2 cup chicken broth
  • 1/3 cup dry white wine
  • 3 tablespoons red wine vinegar
  • 1 bay leaf

Melt butter in Dutch oven over medium heat. Add cabbage, sugar, salt and pepper to taste. Toss well and cook, stirring frequently, about 2 minutes, until cabbage is glazed with sugar-butter mixture. Add broth, wine, vinegar and bay leaf; bring to boil.

Reduce heat to low, cover and simmer about 30 minutes, until cabbage is very tender and most of liquid has been absorbed. If still liquidy, uncover, raise heat and simmer briskly 2 to 3 minutes more, until reduced. Remove bay leaf before serving.

Makes 4 servings.

Chef Richard Marmion, Rivers Casino

Country Style Pork Ribs with Sauerkraut and Apples

PG tested

The meatier the ribs, the better this will be but also make sure some pieces have bones, for deeper flavor. Mashed potatoes are a must-have accompaniment.

  • 3 1/2 pounds country-style pork ribs, cut crosswise into 2-inch chunks, excess fat trimmed
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 teaspoon dried thyme
  • 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
  • About 6 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 large sweet white onion, halved and thinly sliced
  • 1/2 large green cabbage, cored and shredded (about 5 cups)
  • 3 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 tablespoon brown sugar
  • 1 teaspoon caraway seeds
  • 1 bag (2 pounds) sauerkraut, drained
  • 1 1/2 cups apple cider or juice, divided
  • 1/2 cup dry white wine
  • 3 large Granny Smith apples, cored and cut into 1/4-inch-thick slices, slices cut in half

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Season pork all over with salt and pepper and sprinkle with thyme. Coat with flour, shaking off excess. Heat 2 tablespoons oil in large Dutch oven over medium-high heat. In 3 or 4 batches, add pork and cook, turning once, until browned, about 5 minutes, adding more oil to pan as needed. Transfer browned pork to plate.

Add another tablespoon oil to pan, if needed. Stir in onion and reduce heat to medium. Add cabbage, garlic, brown sugar and caraway and mix well. Cook, stirring often, until vegetables are wilted and starting to turn golden, about 8 minutes. Add sauerkraut, 3/4 cup apple cider and wine; stir well and bring to full boil over high heat. Return pork and any juices to pan; return to boil. Transfer to large roasting pan (or 2 smaller pans).

Cover with foil and bake 1 hour. Stir in apples and remaining 3/4 cup cider. Reduce oven temperature to 350 degrees. Bake, uncovered, 30 to 40 minutes more, stirring twice, until apples are tender and pork is tender and lightly browned. (It may seem too liquid at this point; not to worry.) Remove from oven, cover with foil and let stand about 30 minutes before serving.

Makes 8 servings, or more if served with other hearty dishes.

-- Miriam Rubin

Hoppin' John

PG tested

The Lee Bros. Southern Cookbook is a wonderful book and this is one great spicy pot of rice and beans to start your New Year's off with good luck and flavor. The recipe called for a smoked hog jowl as a first choice, rather than bacon, and it was browned in olive oil. Lacking a hog jowl, I went with bacon. If making the dish ahead, add a little broth or water to moisten when reheating.

-- Miriam Rubin

  • 1 cup dried black-eyed peas, picked over
  • 1/4 pound slab bacon or 4 slices thick-cut bacon, cut into 1-inch pieces
  • Olive oil, if needed
  • 1 medium yellow onion, coarsely chopped
  • 6 cups pork broth (I used 3 cups reduced-sodium chicken broth and 3 cups water, plus a smoked ham hock)
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 3/4 to 1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
  • 3/4 to 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • One 14-ounce can crushed Italian tomatoes
  • 1 1/2 cups long-grain white rice

Wash peas in strainer, place in medium bowl and soak in cold water to cover 4 hours or overnight.

In Dutch oven, over medium-high heat, render fat from bacon about 5 minutes, adding a little olive oil to pan if needed to prevent sticking. Add onion and cook until softened, about 5 minutes. Add broth (I added broth and water plus the ham hock), black pepper, crushed red pepper and salt; bring to boil.

Let boil vigorously 10 minutes, then add drained peas. Simmer gently, uncovered, until peas are tender but still have some bite, about 25 minutes. Add tomatoes and rice, return to boil. Cover, reduce heat to low and simmer 20 minutes (no peeking or stirring), until most of broth has been absorbed, but rice and peas are still very moist.

Remove from heat and let steam, covered, about 5 minutes. Remove hog jowl, if used (or ham hock), and pull off any meat. Fluff Hoppin' John with fork; sprinkle any shredded jowl or hock meat over top and serve.

Makes about 10 cups, at least 6 servings, more as a side dish.

-- Adapted from The Lee Bros. Southern Cookbook, Stories and Recipes for Southerners and Would-Be Southerners, by Matt Lee and Ted Lee (Norton; 2006), $35.00

Miriam Rubin: .


Hot Topic