Red beans and rice, that classic combination, is one of those rustic dishes that's open to interpretation.
Some cooks like to toss a ham bone into the simmering beans, while others call for andouille, the coarse, spicy smoked sausage. And then there's Bryant Terry, a James Beard Award-winning chef and author of "Afro-Vegan," who calls for brown rice seasoned with tamari and seitan simmered in red wine.
No matter which direction you take this duo, cooking the beans from scratch makes a difference.
Home-cooked beans are firm, earthy, rich and they simply taste better than those dumped into the pot from a can. Cooking them yourself allows you to control the amount of salt as well as the seasonings. While it does take some forethought, it's really not much work; the beans just simmer away on their own, waiting to be part of a comforting midwinter meal. Double or triple the batch and store the extras in the freezer to have on hand for soups and stews and rice dishes. (Yes, canned beans will do the job in a pinch.)
Combining beans and grains in a single meal has a rich culinary history. Their path to the Americas, or at least New Orleans, likely arrived with slaves from West Africa and wove their way into home kitchens. Jazz icon Louis Armstrong paid homage to his favorite dish by signing off with the phrase, "red beans and ricely yours."
Pableaux Johnson, a native New Orleans food writer who calls himself "your Cajun grandmother with a beard," writes that red beans and rice is so easy, cooks traditionally made it on Mondays, the day set aside to do wash. You'll still find red beans and rice simmering in home and restaurant kitchens in New Orleans on Mondays.
Today's recipe is a lighter version of the Southern classic. It's quicker and lightly spiced; feel free to amp up the seasonings to taste. If you have a favorite Cajun or Creole spice mixture on hand, use that in place of the cayenne and dried herbs, and adjust the amount of salt. Be sure to serve with a side of vinegary, cayenne-based, Louisiana-style hot sauce — Crystal, Louisiana brand, or good old Tabasco.
Red Beans and Rice
Serves 4 to 6.
Note: This recipe comes from a college roommate who lives in Virginia and tells me her mother preferred cooking the beans separately and adding them and the tomatoes at the end. It's lighter than the versions that simmer all of the ingredients into a stew. Plan ahead; the beans need to soak overnight. You can make the rice and beans in advance and then finish the dish later. Sausage is optional (and not used in the recipe photo); feel free to use leftover diced ham or pork instead. From Beth Dooley.
For the beans:
• 3/4 lb. dried red beans
• 1 bay leaf
• 1 small onion, peeled
• 1 carrot
• 1 rib celery
To finish the dish:
• 1/2 lb. andouille or smoked sausage, sliced ½-in. thick, optional (see Note)
• 2 tbsp. vegetable oil
• 4 cloves garlic, minced
• 1 small onion, finely chopped
• 1 small red or green bell pepper, seeded and diced
• 1 c. diced fresh or canned tomatoes, drained
• 1 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
• Generous pinch cayenne
• 1 tsp. salt
• 1 tsp. dried oregano
• 1/2 c. chopped parsley, plus more for garnish
• 1/2 c. chopped fresh green onions
• 2 to 3 c. cooked long grain white or brown rice
To prepare the beans: Put the beans into a medium bowl and add enough water to cover the beans by about 2 to 3 inches. Soak overnight.
Drain the beans, turn into a medium pot, add the bay leaf, onion, carrot and celery. Add enough water to cover the beans by 4 inches and set over high heat to bring to a boil. Reduce the heat, partially cover, and simmer until tender, about 1 to 1 1/2 hours.
To finish the dish: If using sausage, lightly film a heavy pot with a bit of the oil and brown the sausage until slightly crisp. Add the remaining oil, garlic, onions and pepper and sauté over medium heat until the vegetables are tender, about 5 minutes. Add the tomatoes along with the black pepper, cayenne, salt and oregano.
Drain the beans, reserving the bean cooking liquid for another use and discarding the onion, carrot and celery. Add the beans to the pot along with the parsley and green onions and cook, stirring, for about 5 minutes. If the texture seems dry, add about 1/2 cup of the bean stock to the pot. Taste and adjust the seasoning, then toss in the rice and heat through. Serve garnished with chopped parsley.
Beth Dooley is the author of "In Winter's Kitchen." Find her at bethdooleyskitchen.com.