Red Beans 'n Rice!

The quintessential New Orleans dish, traditionally served on Mondays.

This is a very easy dish to make; that said, if you're a first-timer it might take a little practice before you get it right. Me, I got good at it by making it once a week for years, and putting out an open invitation to my friends that there'd be red beans 'n rice at Chuck's place every Monday. (After I while I had to move it to Sunday -- it was tough to cook on Mondays back then. It still tasted good.)

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. A pan-fried Creole hot sausage patty on the side is heaven.

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. (Some might say, "It makes ya fawt less, dawlin'!") If you do, drain the water and cover the beans with a double volume of fresh water in the pot. (This does indeed seem to help reduce the 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 hell out of 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. You'll need to get a feel for consistency; it shouldn't be a watery sauce, but it shouldn't be as thick as refried beans either. 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 (our standard "firsts" serving is 1/2 cup rice topped with 1 cup of red bean and sausage gravy, which is a lot more than it sounds like), with good French bread, good beer and a bottle of Crystal hot sauce handy.. (We call this "Crystallizing it.") I must confess that I serve it over long-grain brown rice these days for health reasons. It's not traditional but still tasty and better for you. You can also use local specialty rice brands like Ellis Stansel's Popcorn Rice.

I also love to serve grilled or broiled fresh Creole hot sausage or chaurice on the side. For some reason my mom always used to serve red beans with sliced beets out of a can. I do not recommend this. (Sorry, Mom.) Her red beans were and are the bomb though. so that certainly helped. I recommend a nice green salad instead.

I also 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! (I really miss the local Rex brand red-dyed pickled onions, which I can't find anymore.) Why does it taste so good? As my sister's old friend (and hardcore New Orleanian) Cherie would say ... "It's da vineguh!" I've also heard that for similar reasons some people put their salads on top of their red beans. I find this disturbingly bizarre, but hey ... do whatcha wanna.

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 1-2 tablespoons neutrally-flavored oil along with the seasonings.
Add 1/2-1 teaspoon (or as much 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 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)