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Red Beans and Dice

February 2, 2012

Sometimes cooking is a gamble. Sometimes you have to be confident with what you know, and kind of fake the rest.

Many years ago, I was visiting my friend S in Los Angeles, and she thought it would be a good idea to make some gumbo. She wanted me to do it, even though I had never made gumbo before. So I went through her cookbooks, got a broad sense about the dish, and then put a gumbo together that used what I thought were the best parts of each recipe. In the end, it turned into something delicious.

Sometimes I follow recipes fastidiously. Other times I cook fast and loose. Well, maybe not so fast. One of these days I’ll get my speed up. The critical piece of that is improving my knife skills.

Red beans and rice is the classic New Orleans dish that I never make exactly the same way twice. It was a staple of our diet last winter, and having not written down the process, I was afraid I had forgotten how to make it. Yesterday, I figured it out again and it came out well. So today I’m transcribing the process, as much for me as for you.

Like most of my hearty winter bean dishes, it starts with two pounds of dried beans.

The techniques for this dish are nothing new. If you have read the earlier post on building flavor, this is really just exemplifies how that process plays out in a classic dish.

Dried beans get picked over, rinsed and soaked in cold water over night.
When you are ready to begin, it’s time to dump and rinse the beans.
Then refill the pot with water, put the plump beans in, and bring the pot to a simmer.
The goal here isn’t to make the beans soft, but to get them on their way.

In another pan, it’s time to start building some flavor.
Brown several 5mm tall disks of andouille sausage on medium low heat.
This will also render out some delicious fat.

As the two pots are on the flame, it’s time to prep the vegetables.
Finely chop up a couple of onions. One if it’s mega large. More if they are puny.
Do the same to a healthy-looking organic green bell pepper.
Ditto with two to three ribs of organic celery.
And put all the veg aside in a bowl.

If you have time, very finely chop a clove or two of garlic and set that aside elsewhere.

Pull the meat from the pan, and set it aside. Keep the fat in the pan. In fact, add some more fat, a lot more, to sauté and soften all those vegetables (except garlic). I like to use expeller pressed organic canola oil.

While these classic New Orleans aromatics are cooking down, and after you have scraped up the brown sausage bits from the bottom of the pan, it’s time to make a spice blend. Here is where the process gets really loose and squishy.

I have no idea what goes into red beans and rice, so I use my Penzey’s Cajun Seasoning spice blend as a guide. I scroll through the list of ingredients, and dump the relevant ones into a bowl, with quantities based on the position on the list.

Here’s how it works:

Sweet paprika – Yes – A ton of it, at least a quarter cup.
Salt – No – The ham is salty and I’ll correct for salt at the end.
Celery – No – I’ve got the real thing in the other pan.
Sugar – No – I hear it can toughen beans.
Garlic – No – I’ll be using the fresh stuff in a moment.
Black pepper –  Yes – Many many turns on the grinder, until I tire of the task.
Onion – No – I can smell all the onion cooking. No need for more.
Oregano – Yes – Maybe about a Tablespoon or more.
Cayenne red pepper – Yes – But I’m cooking for kids, so just a few shakes.
Caraway – No – Don’t keep it in the house.
Dill – No – Ditto.
Turmeric – Yes – A scant tablespoon to help give the dish its proper color.
Cumin – Yes – Fresh ground, actually. At least a teaspoon or so.
Basil – No – I’m not crazy about it in long cooked dishes.
Bay Leaf – Yes – In fact, how about two.
Mace & Cardamom – No – But I briefly thought about substituting ginger and nutmeg.
Marjoram – Yes – A scant teaspoon, maybe a bit more to compensate for the basil.
Rosemary – Yes – A large pinch of the dried stuff goes into the spice grinder with the cumin.
Thyme – Yes – A sizable pinch.

And now I’ve got the spice blend. Besides all the chopping, this takes the most active time. Because from here on out, the tasks come fast and furious.

Drain the softened beans in a colander.
Finish the vegetables with garlic.
Dump the spices (minus the bay leaves) into the aromatics and cook out their rawness.
Then dump the softer, but still firm, beans and stir them into the spicy aromatics.

Marcella Hazan would call this insaporire although I can only assume there is a French name for a similar technique as well.

Anyhow, from there, you put the sausage back in the pot, in addition to a chunk of tasso ham, if you have one. Cover the whole thing with cold water, bring to a boil and then down to the slowest simmer, until the beans are tender and the flavors are melded. At least an hour. It’s a delicate balance because you don’t want all the beans to split, mostly for aesthetics. If they split it’s fine, next time you can adjust.

The broth of the beans may be a little thin, and that’s where gumbo filé comes in. A rounded teaspoon of that at the very end will thicken up the pot nicely. Don’t forget before serving to pull out the ham, chop it up, and mix it back into the beans. Scoop this into a bowl with plenty of rice, and if you’re lucky you’ve got a very satisfying meal.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. February 2, 2012 1:42 pm

    I loved the spice portion of the recipe! Just enough detail, with reasoning to boot.

  2. Darren Shupe permalink
    February 2, 2012 2:19 pm

    Great piece indeed. This time of year I find that as long as I have dried beans in the pantry and a leftover hambone in the freezer I’m in great shape – I’ll have a great soup that’ll last two days or more. Thanks for the suggestion in re the basil – I’ve never really thought about the effects in terms of long cooking, and I suppose my general disposition has always been to assume that as long as herbs are dried they’ll always hold up and flavor the soup or stew slowly as the simmering continues.

    Also nice idea about the andouille sausage – now that I think about it, this reminds me that I need to make Portuguese bean soup soon, something I used to love as a kid. Similar concept, just ham hocks and Portuguese sausage in the mix. Now I’m feeling inspired! :)

  3. Dave S permalink
    February 2, 2012 8:40 pm

    “Salt – No – The ham is salty and I’ll correct for salt at the end.”
    That is one of my worst cooking mistakes, making a soup or gravy with something that is already salty, and adding salt as if I were working with plain water.

    You need a tiny supply of caraway. Its not good for much, but a bit in sauerkraut is really helpful.

    There are seldom enough bay leaves in most dishes.
    My mom put a piece of bay leaf in a small split potato, a bit of butter, wrapped it in “tinfoil”
    and baked it. I do it myself.

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