It’s no secret that meals prepared in the Cajun or Creole style popular in Louisiana are among my favored foods to eat. Many of the dishes are grounded in the utmost simplicity or based in a practicality of life in the humid, swampy world of southern Louisiana before the advent of modern conveniences.
A particular favorite is “red beans and rice,” which sounds simple enough but at its heart requires timing, technique and care. Many spicy recipes for beans arrived in Louisiana in the late 1700s, brought by French-speaking Haitians who were refugees of the revolution in Saint Domingue (today - Haiti). My sister-in-law Debbie, a New Orleans’ native, makes an incredible pot of red beans and rice. I asked her to share her secret.
An influential cook in her younger years loaded his pot with pickled pork. Debbie’s future mother-in-law amped up the offering, adding sausage. “She explained that pickled meat was what everyone in New Orleans used in the old days, and that it was essential not only to creating the perfect flavor in the beans, but also the perfect consistency,” Debbie says. “She went on to tell me that she used sausage as well, because 'Menfolk love plenty of meat in their red beans.’ She also stressed that the sausage won’t actually flavor the beans and should be added shortly before serving. If added too early, it simply falls apart.”
Before we look at ingredients and preparation, here’s a little history. Red beans and rice was a traditional Monday meal. Why? Monday was the day when women or housekeepers were doing the weekly chore of washing clothes. The dried beans soaked overnight on Sunday in preparation for cooking. A Sunday meal often included ham. The leftover hambone, with ample chunks of meat left on it, was added on Monday to simmering pots of red kidney beans while the wash work was underway. Slow simmering beans, cooking over low heat for hours, left hands free for laundry day.
Beans are also nutritious, cholesterol free but full of protein, iron, and zinc, potassium, folate and dietary fiber. Thankfully, the red beans and rice traditions remain. Debbie has been making her version for 35 years. It never disappoints.
• 2 pounds Camellia Dried Red Kidney Beans. Camellia is a New Orleans-based company known for beans that exceed the top USDA grade, supposedly giving them first-rate flavor and creaminess. Obviously, if you can’t get this brand, use other quality grade kidney beans.
• 1 medium-size box or two small boxes of baking soda
• 2 packs of Pickled Meat – Louisiana-based Savoie’s is the family favorite, but other brands can be used provided it is genuine pickled pork. Some people also use Tasso ham.
• 1 pack fully cooked smoked Cajun Sausage - Bryan Smokey Hallow Cajun Sausage is a good choice. Many people also like a good Andouille sausage.
• Long grain, white rice.
• 3-4 bay Leaves.
• Cajun or Creole Seasoning. Tony Chachere’s or Zatarain’s are favorites.
• 1 large yellow or white onion.
• 2 -3 cloves of garlic.
• 3 stalks of celery.
• 3 stalks of green onions (shallots).
Place beans in a large pot or Dutch Oven. Add one entire medium size box or two small boxes of baking soda. Cover with water. Pot must be at least half full of water. Let soak overnight. Debbie says, “Please note, this is not optional! Beans must be soaked overnight with baking soda. Ask any New Orleans person why.”
Here’s what happens. Research has shown that adding baking soda to the water dried beans soaks in decreases the content of the raffinose family of sugars. Undigested sugars fermenting in the human colon produces flatulence. The baking soda reduces some of the sugars that are the culprit – Phhhttt!
The next morning, drain and thoroughly rinse beans and the cooking pot. The beans and pot must be completely clean, with no baking soda residue. Return beans to clean pot and cover them with 4-to-5 inches of water. Turn heat on lowest setting. Then add plenty of salt and Creole seasoning. Then, clean and chop the onions, celery and garlic and add them plus the bay leaves to the beans.
Here’s another technique/finesse point. Ideally, this dish simmers uncovered for many hours, sometimes as long as 8-12 hours. But stoves cook differently. Slow simmering is a breeze with some, more difficult with others. Know your stove and monitor the beans as they cook. The good news is you really don’t have to worry about anything for about four hours except occasionally stirring to ensure the beans don’t stick or scorch.
After the beans simmer for about an hour, get a second pot and cover the pickled meat with water. The meat is cured, not cooked. Cook it through, but don’t boil the life out of it. Once it’s cooked, remove it from the pot and save the water. Cut or break the pork into desired slices or chunks and add to beans. Note: Sometimes, we save all of our bones from hams or Boston butts so they can be added to the pot along with the pickled pork. Stir thoroughly. Increase heat to the second lowest setting (something just above a simmer) and let beans cook slowly.
The best amalgamation of flavors comes when the pot simmers and the liquid reduces over a long time. Four hours should be a minimum. Six-to-8 hours may be ideal, depending on your stove. You need to frequently stir the pot while being careful not to bruise the beans. You don’t want mush. You want them to preserve their basic shape while getting them to a creamy texture, with full, rich flavor that melts in your mouth. You can also interrupt the cooking if you don’t have enough time and refrigerate the covered beans overnight. This is one of those dishes that often tastes best a day after the primary cooking. If you let it sit in refrigerator overnight, remove it from the fridge a 2-to-3 hours before the desired serving time and let it come to room temperature before putting back on the stove.
If the pot is sitting overnight, also refrigerate the pickled meat cooking water to add the next day as the beans may thicken too much. Adding this water helps preserve flavor versus diluting the pot. Only add as much as necessary. Too much water means longer cooking at higher heat to reduce the concoction to the desired consistency. Hard boiling at this point to reduce excess water is less than ideal - not good. As you approach the homestretch, monitor the pot closely. You’re shooting for that ideal consistency - thick, creamy stew-like versus runny and soupy. If serving the same day, use the pickled meat water the same, simply correcting consistency.
Adjust temperature settings judiciously. Don’t let the beans scorch. Taste and correct seasonings as you progress. After several hours of simmering and with the beans at the desired consistency, add the cut-up sausage and cook another 10-to-15 minutes. Turn off the heat. Your rice has been prepared according to package directions. Place the rice on plates or in bowls and spoon the red beans over it. Sprinkle chopped shallots for garnish. Serve with green veggies or salad and rolls or French bread. I like to punch my bowl up a little with a couple splashes of Tabasco or other flavorful hot sauce. Enjoy!