Friday, July 6, 2012

Red Beans and Rice, Oh, So Nice!

Red Beans and Rice, oh, are they so nice!
I have to tell you from personal experience, tradition can be so very delicious! For example, every Monday in most New Orleans kitchens, there’s a pot of red beans slowly cooking on the stove.  That, truly, is a tradition that should be started in every kitchen across the globe.  

Classic New Orleans Garden District Home
There’s a great story behind this dish. In my family, and throughout the south, Sunday dinner usually featured a lovely baked ham with all the trimmings. This meal was the big meal of the week.  After church, mothers, fathers, grandparents and cousins would come together, dressed in their Sunday best, for a formal sit down dinner, in the dining room. The table would be decked out with the good china and silver, covered with the cherished tablecloth and cloth napkins, crystal and a delicious home cooked meal. (In my family, my grandmother was the cook).   I digress, back to the story... On Monday, especially in New Orleans, the leftover ham and bones would be made into another meal... a bubbling big pot of red beans, served over rice.  Interesting fact: according to Wikipedia, red beans and rice is one of the few New Orleans style dishes commonly cooked in both homes and restaurants. The dish and its tradition were brought with the rich white sugar planters who fled to Louisiana after the slave rebellion of Haiti.

Red beans and ham by themselves are fairly bland; it’s what seasonings you choose to add that make it an extraordinary dish to be savored. Along with the beans and ham, you must add the holy trinity of creole cooking...  celery, onion and green peppers. In season five of Top Chef, guest judge Emeril Lagasse explained to the competing chefs these three ingredients are referred to as the “Holy Trinity.”  Also, the right combination of spices: salt, pepper, thyme, and parsley are among my favorites.

"St. Joan of Arc, Maid of Orleans"at the French Market
There are different variations to this recipe; each cook has their own secret to making a good pot of red beans.  I have several cookbooks that have multiple recipes for this southern comfort in a bowl dish. I concocted my own version of red beans and rice; I let my instincts guide me. Of course, I kept the basic “holy trinity”.  That would be sacrilege to alter it!

Red Beans and Rice, oh, they are so nice! The smell of the red beans slowly cooking on the stove emanates throughout the house. It’s such a warm and comforting aroma. And, I have to spill, the smell sends to my happy place!

New Orleans Garden District
I have to pat myself on the back... It was exactly what I had envisioned when I decided to make it.  Warm and comforting, every spoonful reminding us of our time in New Orleans. If you can’t decide what to make for dinner, red beans and rice is something I highly recommend. It does take a little time investment, but not a lot of effort.  I started with soaking my red beans in water overnight (there’s the investment).  In the morning, I rinsed the beans, filled the pot with water, submerged a ham hock and added the following spices: 1 tsp. dried thyme, 1 tsp. oregano, 1 T. ground pepper, 1 T. salt, 1 ½ tsp. garlic powder, ½ tsp. cumin, ½ c. chopped tomato, and  part of the trinity - ½ c. chopped onion and ½ c. celery. I waited to add the green pepper until later; I find the green peppers disintegrate in the long, slow process.  I brought the pot to a boil and then turned down for a long, low and slow simmer for the rest of the day. We try to watch our sodium intake, so I use salt sparingly, you may want to add more salt to your taste preference.  Two hours before I was ready to serve, I added a chopped green pepper and a ham steak.  Not counting the soaking time, our red beans cooked about 8 hours.

The "Original" Beignets at Cafe Du Monde
I know I already said this was a great dinner, but it really was! As we scooped up spoonful after spoonful of this mesmerizing dish, images of past trips to the “Big Easy” filled our minds: strolling through the Garden District admiring the beautiful old homes, smelling the magnolias and gardenias growing tall in the yards, dusting the powdered sugar off our laps as we dive into a basket of beignets at Cafe du Monde, enjoying a big yummy chilled Hurricane at Pat O’Brien’s. On Monday night, along with almost every other New Orleans citizen, we too followed tradition and relished this delicious dish.

As I mentioned, there are a variety of ways you can make your red beans and rice, some add smoked sausage, or more specifically, Andouille or toss in a little savory Tasso ham.  Some cooks add bay leaves, or other spices, it really is up to your own palate, as long as you keep the trinity!

Corn Bread in the classic cast iron skillet
With our dinner, I served Jasmine rice and baked a pan of corn bread.  Growing up, corn bread was the one dish my family ate with every dinner, and was one of our main snacks – corn bread and milk. It was the first dish I learned to cook at the ripe old age of 5 years old. My mom taught me... and I can still remember standing on the little kitchen stool stirring all the ingredients following my mom’s directions. 

But this story is for another time.... I have very strong opinions on the proper way to make corn bread.

Well, until next time...
May your kitchen be filled with good food, loving family and friends, and great wine!

SRQ Foodie

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