Keeping the Tradition Alive - Red Beans and Rice
It's easy to know what's for dinner on Monday in New Orleans. The very New Orleans dish - Red Beans and Rice is a staple on Mondays. You'll find it as a special on cafe menus, in the lunch line at schools and on the tables at homes throughout the city. What is this dish and why Mondays? Red Beans and Rice is pretty much that, kidney red beans cooked slowly with a combination of vegetables, spices and meat, served over rice. It's the layering of flavors and the slow cooking that produce a creamy, delicious dish.
There are two leading theories for how red kidney beans arrived in New Orleans 1) with West African slaves or 2) with refugees who'd fled the Haitian Revolution in the 1790s. No one can say with certainty exactly when the dish that we know as New Orleans-style Red Beans and Rice originated, but Creole cookbooks dating back to the early 1800's describe recipes that are essentially identical to what people make today. Now, the Monday portion of the tradition is also two-fold. First, many families in 19th-century New Orleans would often have ham as the centerpiece of their elaborate Sunday dinners. Red Beans and rice would use the left over hambone and meat, so it was a great way to extend the value. Second, Monday was wash day. Laundry in those days was a lot of work and often resulted in an all-day chore. Red Beans and Rice was the perfect hands-off meal - saute some veggies, throw the beans in the pot with some broth and meat and let it simmer over a low flame. Hours later, voila! You have a delicious meal. Mondays may not be laundry day anymore, but New Orleans has a way of fiercely holding on to their traditions, especially food traditions, so it's most certainly, still Red Beans and Rice day.
When we lived in New Orleans we made Red Beans and Rice at least once a month. Now that we're in Charlemont and far away from the tradition, we've been making it more often. In fact, I currently have a pot of red beans on the stove right now (it's Monday after all!) It's my son, Anders most favorite meal. When I would pick him up from school I'd always ask for him to tell me his favorite part of the day. On Mondays the answer was always the same "Red Beans and Rice for lunch." Not terribly surprising because he is a boy who is primarily led by his stomach, but I also contribute his love for this dish to his birth.
Anders was born during Hurricane Issac. The hospital was on emergency generator power. He was born with his umbilical cord not only wrapped around his neck, but also tied in a perfect knot. You can imagine what went through my head when the doctor (who was in her early 60's and had delivered many, many babies) said "Wow, I've only seen this once before!" I hadn't seen him yet, so I was imagining he had 11 toes, or a third eye ball, you know the normal things that mom's imagine...but no, the boy who still won't stop moving, never stopped moving even in utero and his acrobatics managed to tie his umbilical cord in a perfect knot, one that thankfully never fully constricted. The doctor cut that portion of his cord and it made its rounds about the hospital (she felt the residents should see the marvel that was this knot). After all of this excitement, I was starving. I sent Levi to go find something to eat. The hospital was in Uptown New Orleans, an area that is typically teeming with delicious food. But nothing is typical during and immediately after a hurricane. No restaurants were open. He knew that if he came back empty handed, it wouldn't be pretty. So he searched on and eventually came upon a Popeye's that was open. This Popeye's (yes, the chain famous for fried chicken and their actually really good fried chicken sandwich), had a really limited menu due to the storm. They only were serving some of their sides. He purchased two quarts of their red beans and returned to his wife and newborn son. I have to say, when he entered the room with the red beans, I was a bit disappointed. I had been imagining something a little more grand as my reward for delivering a baby without pain medication during a hurricane. But I was hungry and my alternative was hospital food, so I eagerly opened one of those quarts and dug in. My first bite was delicious! I quickly back peddled those thoughts I had that maybe my husband should have searched a bit harder...I looked up at Levi and said "I love these! Why are they so good?" His response "Lard, they use a lot of lard..." So, by way of nursing, Anders' first "meal" was Popeye's Red Beans and Rice with apparently a lot of lard.
I've never used lard in my Red Beans, but they still come out creamy and delicious. When cooking for home, our method is less of a recipe and more of a "what do we have in the fridge?" The things you'll always need are the trinity - bell pepper, celery and onions. I like to add the Pope, aka garlic as well. You'll need dried red kidney beans, Creole seasoning (or a combination of spices including cayenne, paprika, onion powder, etc.), bay leaves, broth or water, and some type of pork for flavor (this is traditional, you could make vegetarian beans, but the flavor will be different from NOLA style Red Beans and Rice). Andouille sausage and ham are traditional, but some of the best Red Beans I've ever had included pickled pork too. The pot I have on the stove at the moment has only andouille for the meat and it's cooking up beautifully. We serve over rice, often times with a side of cornbread. My friend, Melissa, recently taught me that a garnish of pickled cocktail onions is surprisingly delicious over a bowl of red beans. The vinegar in the pickle provides a nice balance to the creaminess of the beans. Try it and you likely find a way to use up those cocktail onions accumulating dust in your liquor cabinet.
We plan to keep the Red Beans and Rice tradition alive at Wells Provisions and will likely have this beloved dish as a special, as well as available in family size meals to-go. But if you're looking to try this out at home on a Monday (or any day of the week), here's a recipe from our dear friend, Pableaux Johnson. He's famous for his red beans with his fame beginning at home. He organizes these fantastic Monday Red Beans and Rice dinner parties. The guest list is always small and always changing and he has the knack of putting together really interesting people from all walks of life, who connect over a bowl of Red Beans, a slice of cornbread and a glass of bourbon. He now travels around the country with his Red Bean Road Show (or at least did before the pandemic) popping up at restaurants for one night only serving his famous Red Beans and Rice. Maybe he'll even pop up in Charlemont one day!
Signing off with the words of Louis Armstrong - Red Beans and Ricely Yours, Wesley
Red Beans and Rice Recipe by Pableaux Johnson
1 pound Red Beans soaked
1 pound good smoked sausage, preferably andouille, sliced into coins
3 tablespoons oil
2 medium onions, chopped
1 rib celery, chopped
1 bell pepper, chopped
6 to 8 cloves garlic, minced
Tony Chachere’s Creole Seasoning
Salt and pepper
1 tablespoon dried basil
Pinch rubbed sage
3 bay leaves
Crystal Hot Sauce
1 bunch green onions, chopped
1 bunch flat-leaf parsley, minced
Cooked rice for serving
Heat oil in a large heavy pot. Brown the sausage, stirring frequently, to render as much fat as possible. When well browned, remove sausage from the pot and drain on paper towels. Add onions to pot and season with lots of Tony’s, salt and pepper.
Cook onions over medium heat, stirring frequently, until well browned. Add garlic and cook 5 to 10 minutes; add celery and bell pepper and cook until translucent.
Drain water off the soaked red beans and add the beans to the pot. Cover with fresh water. Rub the basil between the palms of your hands as you add it to the pot. Add sage and bay leaves. Add sausage back to the pot and stir well.
Bring to a boil, then lower heat and simmer, stirring occasionally, until beans are tender, about 1 to 1-1/2 hours. When beans are tender, mash some with a potato masher until the mixture looks creamy.
Stir in the chopped green onions and most of the parsley, reserving some parsley for diners to add at the table. Season well with Crystal Hot Sauce.
Serve hot with cooked white rice, extra parsley and more hot sauce.