This Creole Dish is a Mardi Gras Favorite
Red Beans and Rice is a traditional Creole (not Cajun) dish popular throughout Louisiana. This long-cooked comfort food used to be a staple every Monday — the day many people did their weekly laundry — because it could simmer unattended for hours, and be ready when dinnertime rolled around. Nowadays, we often associate the dish with New Orleans (where it’s available in many restaurants) and with Mardi Gras (because a batch feeds a crowd).
Red Beans and Rice is great any time of the year, but it’s particularly good in cold weather. So with chilly temps throughout much of the US at the moment, and Mardi Gras coming up later this week, maybe now is the time to cook some up for yourself.
Recipe: Red Beans and Rice
This dish gets its primary flavor from long-cooked beans, which achieve a smooth and creamy texture. Most people also add meat in the form of ham bone, sausage, or pickled pork. But the beans still manage to steal the show.
You can prepare this dish without soaking the beans, but it will take an extra hour or two to cook. Since most of us don’t hang around the house all day, it’s usually more practical to make the dish using soaked beans.
As is the case with many dishes (think chili), every family seems to have their own recipe for Red Beans and Rice. And you can find scores more in cookbooks. Mine is loosely based on one found in The 100 Greatest New Orleans Creole Recipes by Roy F. Guste, Jr.
This dish takes some time to make. You need to soak the beans (the long-soak method requires at least 8 hours, while the quick soak takes a bit over an hour). Then active prep time is 20 to 30 minutes. Add another 2 hours or so for cooking time. So once you have the beans soaked and ready to go, figure close to 3 hours — most of which will be unattended cooking.
This recipe feeds at least 8 people, and leftovers keep for a few days in an airtight container in the refrigerator. Or you can freeze the bean mixture (sans rice) for several months.
- 1 pound dried red beans (dark kidney beans are commonly available, as are small “red” beans)
- 2 or 3 ham shanks or hocks (a pound or more)
- ~12 cups water (just enough to cover beans by an inch; see Step 2)
- 1 pound spicy smoked sausage (andouille is traditional; but in most supermarkets kielbasa or another flavored sausage is a better bet — see Notes)
- 1 tablespoon pure olive oil (the cheap stuff) or neutral vegetable oil (like canola)
- 1 large onion
- 1 green bell pepper
- 3 ribs celery
- 1 bunch green scallions (optional)
- 4 - 8 cloves garlic (or to taste)
- ½ teaspoon dried red pepper flakes, or more to taste
- 8 or 9 shakes from a bottle of hot sauce, such as Tabasco (optional)
- 1 teaspoon dried thyme
- 1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
- salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 3 - 4 tablespoons minced parsley (optional)
- cooked rice (I always figure ¾ cup of cooked rice per person, although you may want to adjust that quantity)
- garnish of parsley or minced green tips from scallions
Although there are quite a few steps to this recipe, the preparation isn't difficult. Read through the steps a time or two and you'll discover that it's a straightforward dish to prepare.
- Pick over beans (to remove any dirt or stones) and soak 8 hours or overnight in enough water to cover by several inches (see Notes for quick-soak method.) I usually leave the beans out on the kitchen counter overnight, but you can refrigerate them if you’re worried that they may start to ferment.
- About 2½ to 3 hours before you want to serve the dish, place drained beans in a large pot (one with a capacity of at least 6 quarts). Rinse ham shanks or hocks and add them to the pot. Add enough water to cover the beans by about an inch (approximately 12 cups for me), bring to simmer, and skim scum that will form.
- Simmer for 45 minutes to an hour (this is to develop stock). By simmer, I mean tiny bubbles are rising to the surface and breaking; we’re not talking any kind of boiling action.
- After the beans have been simmering for about 45 minutes to an hour (time isn’t critical for this step), cut sausage into slices about ½ inch thick (they look prettier if cut on the bias).
- Heat a skillet (preferably nonstick) on medium-hot for 2 minutes. Add oil and let it warm (it will ripple), then add sausage. Sauté over medium heat until nicely browned on both sides (about 5 or 6 minutes; flip sausage over halfway through cooking)
- Meanwhile, peel and cut onion into ½-inch dice; wash green bell pepper and cut into pieces about ½ inch square; wash celery, peel, and cut into dice; and wash scallions (if using) and chop into pieces about ¼ long (reserve a few of the green ends for garnish, if desired).
- When sausage is cooked, remove it from the skillet with a slotted spoon and add it to the beans. Reheat skillet, add additional oil if necessary (it shouldn’t be), and then add the cut-up onion, green bell pepper, celery, and scallions (if using). Sauté until the veggies turn limp and the onion begins to become translucent — 5 minutes or a bit longer.
- Meanwhile, peel garlic and cut into fine dice or thin pieces. Remove ham shanks (or hocks) from beans, and set aside to cool.
- When onion is limp, add garlic and sauté it with the vegetables for 2 minutes.
- Add red pepper flakes to skillet, cook for 30 seconds, and then scrape the contents of the skillet into the pot containing the beans.
- Add hot sauce, dried thyme, and Worcestershire sauce to the bean pot, taste, and add salt and pepper to taste.
- Remove meat from ham shanks or hocks, dice fine, and add to the bean pot. Cook until beans have been simmering for 2 hours (from the time you started Step 3).
- Meanwhile, clean and mince parsley, if using.
- At the 2-hour mark, stir the parsley into the bean pot. Check the beans — if they’re soft and creamy, the dish is ready to go. Otherwise, continue cooking a bit longer.
- Just before serving, you may want to mash up some beans (or whirl with a hand-held blender for a few seconds; see Notes) to break down some of the beans and thicken the sauce a bit.
- Adjust seasoning, and serve the beans over cooked rice. Garnish each serving with some chopped parsley or minced green tips from scallions, if desired. I always have a bottle of Tabasco on the table for those who want their beans to be a bit hotter.
- Quick-soak method for beans: Pick through the beans, then rinse them. Place beans in a large pot and cover with several inches of water. Bring to boil, and allow to boil for 2 minutes. Remove from heat, cover, and allow to sit for at least one hour. Then drain, rinse, and proceed with recipe.
- Beans soaked overnight have slightly better texture (when cooked) than beans that are quick-soaked, but the difference is minimal. In fact, nowadays when I use dried beans, I almost always use the quick-soak method.
- Why soak dried beans? Because they cook much quicker when you rehydrate them. Most beans benefit from soaking. However, because lentils and split peas cook fairly quickly without rehydration, you can use them without soaking.
- A secondary benefit is that while rehydrating, the beans also release some of their flatulence-inducing sugars (oligosaccharides) into the water. When you discard the soaking water, you discard a few nutrients that have leeched into it. But you also discard some of the substance that can cause people to shy away from dried beans.
- You can also make this dish without soaking beans: Just pick through the beans, then rinse. Then follow the recipe beginning with Step 2, but add at least an extra hour (and usually more like an hour and a half) cooking time in Step 3.
- This dish is traditionally made with ham bone, but most of us don’t have these on hand. Ham shanks or hocks (the shanks have more meat) are a good substitute, and make a nice broth.
- If you want a stronger flavored broth, you can add a bit of ham base to the pot. Ham base is concentrated stock in paste form, and is sold in jars in the soup section of many supermarkets (I particularly like the Better than Bouillon brand, but there are other good ones out there).
- Some Red Beans and Rice recipes call for tasso, a spicy ham-like smoked meat that is made from pork shoulder (ham is always made from the pork hind leg, but the flavor of the two is identical). Typically, you sauté it along with the onions, green pepper, and celery.
- Many versions of this dish call for sausage. Andouille is the traditional choice. This is a spicy sausage flavored with garlic. It’s always made with pork, although I’ve seen some good ones that also use a bit of beef. Look for a locally made one; I haven’t seen any sold by a national brand that are worth buying. If you can’t find a decent andouille, look for a smoked sausage, preferably one that’s spicy. Kielbasa often makes a good substitute.
- Many people from Louisiana say that Red Beans and Rice isn’t the “real thing” unless it contains pickled pork (pork that is brined in vinegar and seasonings). You can buy this at the supermarket in some (though not most) parts of the country, or you can make your own (there are loads of recipes on the internet; Google is your friend here).
- If you use a stick blender to break down your beans a bit (Step 15), use one with a metal shaft. Be aware that if your stick blender has a plastic shaft, the hot liquid may crack it. Ask me how I know.
- As noted above, this recipe is Creole, not Cajun. Creole refers to “people descended from the colonial settlers in Louisiana, especially those of French and Spanish decent.” Cajuns are descended from Acadians — “French-speakers from Acadia in what are now the Canadian Maritimes.”
- When it comes to food, Cajun tends to be more rustic, while Creole generally is more European-influenced. Creole dishes are quite common in New Orleans restaurants. Both cuisines are good stuff.
Bring on Mardi Gras — and Other Festivities!
There’s a lot going on this week. Chinese New Year begins today, February 10th (it’s the year of the snake). Valentine’s Day is Thursday, the 14th. And the 12th is Shrove Tuesday — Mardi Gras — which means that Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent (and for many people, a 40-day period of abstaining from rich food).
Traditionally on Mardi Gras (which means “Fat Tuesday” in French), people use up all the fat in the house in preparation for the fast to come. So many people make doughnuts, Pancakes, and all sorts of other fatty foods.
Mardi Gras is also a big party time, especially in New Orleans, but in many other places as well. There are big doings — including parades and such — in a lot of communities (St. Louis, where I live, has a celebration that isn’t quite in the same league as the one in New Orleans, but is pretty raucous and festive nonetheless). If you don’t fancy pancakes or doughnuts for your Mardi Gras feast, Red Beans and Rice would be perfect.
If you want a similar dish that pays homage to Chinese New Year, you might consider making Red-Braised Beans and Sweet Potatoes or Red-Braised Beef with Sweet Potatoes. The former is a vegetarian dish; add beans to the latter (along with the beef, or substitute pork), and you have a meat-and-beans dish that will please anyone.
Two traditional drinks for Mardi Gras are the Sazerac and the Hurricane cocktails. Not so traditional, but very tasty, is the Betsy Ross Cocktail, which we discussed last summer. We featured it for 4th of July. But brandy makes it a very warming drink, and thus more appropriate for cold weather, IMO. (And isn’t Presidents Day coming up soon?)
Any way you look at it, the next week or so is chockfull of celebrations. So, as they say in New Orleans, laissez les bons temps rouler (let the good times roll).
You may also be interested in reading about:
Red-Braised Beans and Sweet Potatoes
Hot and Sour Soup
Vegan Mapo Tofu
Pasta e Fagioli
White Bean and Potato Soup
Black-Eyed Pea and Collard Green Soup
Bean and Cabbage Soup
Tuscan Bean Soup