“Blue Monday,” the tune made famous by New Orleans legend Fats Domino and written by the equally legendary Dave Bartholomew, sums up how most of us feel at the beginning of the week after the giddiness of the weekend has worn off and reality beckons.
“Blue Monday, how I hate Blue Monday,” Domino sings, while the piano trills underneath his rich baritone voice. And who could blame him? Monday is a a day of toil, even in carefree New Orleans, where Monday traditionally meant laundry day. But from this toil, one of our most recognizable and renowned dishes was born: red beans and rice. Every Monday in restaurants and homes throughout the city, the slow-simmered-until-they-fall-apart, creamy beans, loaded with smoked sausage and pickled meat, are served over a bed of fragrant Louisiana long grain rice, often with a piece of fried chicken or a pork chop. And there is always cornbread to soak up whatever goodness may remain.
The origin of red beans and rice, like so many dishes in New Orleans, is the confluence of cultures and their subsequent Creolization. The origins of the dish are distinctly African and Afro-Caribbean, with rice and beans dishes such as waayke from Ghana a likely predecessor to the dish we know today. It is also theorized that in the aftermath of the Haitian Revolution in 1791, the spicy rice and beans dishes that were popular in the country and elsewhere in the Caribbean were brought to New Orleans by fleeing white colonizers and the enslaved Africans they took with them. And this would support the popular story of the dish: that after the lavish Sunday supper which would often feature a ham, the servants and the enslaved would be given the scraps and the hambone, which they would use to flavor their pot of beans on Monday. It was a dish that could be cooked slowly, all day over an open fire, while laundry and other drudgery were attended to. It was also an economical dish – one that could stretch, and easily feed the larger families that were typical at the time.
These days, red beans are still served on Mondays in New Orleans, but it is not uncommon to find them wherever a good time is being had in the city. They are a staple of what we call party food, and from tailgates to baby showers and even wedding receptions, they are always a hit.
But there is no better place to enjoy them than in the Creole community of the 6th and 7th Wards of New Orleans, where the dish has its deepest roots. And one of the best spots to try them is at Li’l Dizzy’s Café (a stop on our New Orleans food tour, we should mention), where the Baquet family has been serving them up every Monday, along with their delectable fried chicken, since 2005, but the family’s history in the restaurant business goes back to the 1940. To say the Baquet family name is synonymous with Creole cooking in New Orleans would be no exaggeration. And on Mondays there is a line out the door to grab a plate of red beans and rice and fried chicken, with a piece of sweet, cakey cornbread as a sop.
If you can’t get to New Orleans, we have provided a recipe that will get you as close as you can get without catching a flight. The most important part, of course, is the beans themselves. In New Orleans, we use Camellia Brand beans, and there really is no substitute. Their size and texture and the way they break down into a creamy gravy are unmatched. And then, of course, there are the meats – smoked ham hocks, pickled meat, and smoked sausage. While some of these are particular to New Orleans, acceptable substitutes can be found in most places. Pickled meat, in particular (often called pickled tips here) is something you probably won’t find in your local grocery store, but it can be sourced here: Pickled Pork. If you don’t eat pork, smoked turkey or beef sausage can be used instead. But make no mistake, this is a meat-laden dish. It’s part of what makes it so satisfying. And of course, you need the “holy trinity,” onions, celery and bell peppers, as well as a solid amount of garlic. And you can’t forget the Creole seasoning. But at its essence, red beans is the ultimate one pot dish; simple to assemble, cook and serve, and beloved by generations.
Louis Armstrong, the famous trumpeter, composer and performer – who lived the majority of his adult life in Queens, NY, but never forgot his New Orleans home – offered as his closing salutation, “Red Beans and Ricely, Yours.” It is truly a dish that sticks with you. Now let’s cook.
Red Beans and Rice Recipe (serves 8)
1 lb Camellia Red Kidney Beans
1/2 lb pickled meat
1/2 lb seasoned ham or tasso
1/2 lb smoked sausage, sliced into rounds
1 cup onion, diced (about one medium onion)
1/2 cup bell pepper, diced (about one medium bell pepper)
1/2 cup diced celery (about four stalks of celery)
3 green onions, sliced
1 tsp salt
1 tsp black pepper
1/2 tsp cayenne pepper
1/4 tsp white pepper
1 tsp garlic powder
2 tbsp of fresh parsley
1 tbsp of dried parsley
1 tsp of dried oregano
3 bay leaves (always an odd number, according to Chef Leah Chase)
4 cups chicken stock
4 cups water
1/2 stick butter or 2 tbsp bacon fat
2 cups cooked long grain rice
Procedure and Notes:
There are a few different theories about the best way to cook red beans (or dried beans in general). One insists that the beans must be soaked overnight. While this isn’t absolutely necessary (and oftentimes not practical due to space) it is definitely something that New Orleans cooks still do. In theory, this allows the beans to get softer, and it certainly decreases the cook time. Another method is to brown the meats first before adding the rest of the ingredients. But to me this also seems more labor intensive than necessary. My preference, in keeping with the genesis of the dish, is to soak all of the ingredients together overnight in the pot, and then transfer the whole thing to the stovetop to cook. In my opinion, this offers the best depth of flavor. This can also be done in a crockpot in a similar manner.
After the overnight soak, cook the beans over a medium flame until they boil freely for the first two hours, stirring occasionally. Once the beans start to burst, reduce the heat to a simmer and stir regularly, making sure the beans don’t stick to the bottom of the pot and scorch. When the beans are tender, use a spoon to smash about a quarter of the beans against the side of the pot. By this point the beans will have become very creamy. A good indicator that the beans are done is also when the ham hock (if using) falls off the bone. If the beans seem too thick, add a little bit of water or stock.
For that velvety texture that is the hallmark of New Orleans red beans, add a little butter or bacon fat in at the end (you can skip this step if you are dairy free). When the beans are finished, serve over rice and garnish with green onions and a dash of your favorite hot sauce. And if you really want to take it all the way home, grill a link of hot sausage, smoked sausage, or add a piece of fried chicken or a fried pork chop. Now you’re eating good.
You can watch the video here for red beans and rice, by James Cullen.
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Published on January 25, 2023