Red Beans 'n Rice!

The quintessential New Orleans dish, traditionally served on Mondays.

A lot of this is going to be trial-and-error, and it's going to take a little practice before you get it right. Me, I got good at it by making it once a week for over two years, and putting out an open invitation to my friends that there'd be red beans 'n rice at Chuck's place every Sunday (well, it was tough to cook on Mondays back then).

This dish holds a very special place in my heart. While I have many favorite dishes, and have had fabulous meals the likes of which come along very rarely ... this is tops. It's delicious, it's cheap, it's simple, and it makes me feel good. It's the number one comfort food in the world for me. It's the last meal I want to eat before I die.

You'll probably want to fiddle with it each time you make it, and arrive at the exact, instinctual combinations of seasonings that you like. Feel free to alter this recipe to your taste, but don't stray too far.

A regular old smoked ham hock from the grocery store works fine for flavor, but tends not to have a whole heck of a lot of meat on it. If you can find a specialty butcher that stocks large smoked ham shanks with lots of meat on them, which is fantastic. You kind of can't go wrong with whatever smoked pork product you throw into this, but traditionally it's been ham, ham hocks, pickle meat and smoked sausage, singly or in various combinations.

You can make this dish completely vegetarian, and it's still good; instructions are below.

This recipe has been featured in several editions of the Frommer's Guide to New Orleans, for which I also wrote a bunch of restaurant reviews. Neato! (Alas, it's since been edited out for space, but it was very cool while it lasted.)

It's not necessary to soak the beans overnight, but you can if you want to. If you do, drain the water and cover the beans with a double volume of fresh water in the pot. (This helps reduce the, um, flatulence factor.) Bring the beans to a rolling boil. Make sure the beans are always covered by water, or they will discolor and get hard. Boil the beans for about an hour, until the beans are tender but not falling apart.

While the beans are boiling, sauté the Trinity (onions, celery, bell pepper) until the onions turn translucent. Add the garlic and saute for 2 more minutes, stirring occasionally. After the beans are boiled (save the water this time!), add the sautéed vegetables to the beans, then add the ham hock or shank (or ham or pickle meat), smoked sausage, seasonings, and just enough water to cover.

Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to a low simmer. Cook for 2 hours at least, preferably 3, until the whole thing gets nice and creamy. Adjust seasonings as you go along. Stir occasionally, making sure that it doesn't burn and/or stick to the bottom of the pot. (If the beans are old -- say, older than six months to a year -- they won't get creamy. Make sure the beans are reasonably fresh. If it's still not getting creamy, take 1 or 2 cups of beans out and mash them, then return them to the pot and stir.)

If you can ... let the beans cool, stick them in the fridge, and reheat and serve for dinner the next day. They'll taste a LOT better. When you do this, you'll need to add a little water to get them to the right consistency.

Serve generous ladles-ful over hot white long-grain rice, with good French bread and good beer. I also love to serve grilled or broiled fresh Creole hot sausage or chaurice on the side. Do not serve with a canned-beet salad, like my Mom always used to do. (Sorry, Mom ... try something interesting with fresh beets and we'll talk. :^)

I like serving a few small pickled onions with my red beans -- I chop them up and mix them in with the beans. It's great! Why does it taste so good? As my sister's friend (and dyed-in-the-wool New Orleanian) Cherie Valenti would say ... "It's da vineguh!"

YIELD: 8 servings

Vegetarian Version

Follow the same instructions as for the regular version above, except:

Omit the ham hock (or ham or pickle meat), and the smoked sausage.
Add 2 tablespoons vegetable oil along with the seasonings.
Add 1/2 teaspoon (or enough as you like, to taste) of Wright's liquid smoke seasoning. The vegetable oil helps replace the fat you get from the sausage, and the liquid smoke flavoring helps replace the smokiness you get from the smoked sausage and smoked ham hock. Be very careful with liquid smoke, though ... a little goes a long way and it's really easy to overdo it.


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Chuck Taggart   (e-mail chuck)