Red beans and rice is one of the quintessential New Orleans dishes. You eat them on Monday--every Monday, if possible--after cooking them on Sunday and soaking them on Saturday night. Monday was "wash day" in New Orleans, and became the traditional day for eating red beans because they could be cooked all day with little fuss while doing other chores. I love to make huge batches and freeze them in meal-size portions, so each Monday morning I can set one container out to thaw and dinner is planned. Make up some fresh rice, heat the beans, and get some pickled onions...oh yes, the pickled onions. More on those later.
One thing to remember when cooking New Orleans red beans is that texture is crucial. The form of the finished dish should not be a soup, per se, nor a collection of loose beans that scatter over a plate of rice; they should require a bowl, but in a pinch they could be eaten on a plate because the mass of them is heavy and slow to travel. The beans are what locals call "creamy," although cream is never an ingredient. Their long, patient cooking softens them to a naturally saucy consistency, and if cooked with a ham shank, which I recommend, a stock forms in the pot and adds its own rich thickeners from meat and bone. Red beans cooked with ham and sausage are still just called "red beans," and some Louisianians will swear that they're a vegetable. Some restaurants offer them with an additional topper of a chicken breast, large sausage link, or a fried pork chop. One thing I've learned to love as a topping on my red beans is pickled onions (I first read about this on Chuck Taggert's Gumbo Pages). The vinegar bite of pickled onions is a perfect foil for the beans' dense, smoky thickness. Bottled cocktail onions are perfect for this, or you can make your own; I've included an easy recipe. They smell like Christmas.
Now, to the question of meat and meat's necessity: First, you can make some delicious red beans with no meat at all. I've made these beans without meat, just using water or vegetable broth as the cooking liquid, and they turn out great. As a boost, I add a couple of drops of liquid smoke. Everyone loves them. I'm guessing that you could also substitute soy-based smoked sausage or bacon for the regular stuff and get a similar result. Second, some recipes for red beans call for smoked meat (like ham hock or ham) to add flavor to the beans, and some recipes call for pickled meat (like pickled pork). In The Dooky Chase Cookbook, chef Leah Chase explains that pickling meat is something that New Orleans Creoles did, so it's more of a city touch, while smoked meat is something that country folks used. Having used both, I prefer smoked meat, and I recommend using a ham shank, which is meatier and smokier, than ham hocks.
I add lots of chopped veggies to my beans! It makes them taste really, really good. Here is a sort of step-by-step photo recipe, so you can see the thickening process. You can cut the quantities in half if you don't want so much.
Food Orleans Red Beans
- 2 pounds dried red kidney beans, picked over, soaked in water to cover for 8 hours or overnight
- 1 smoked ham shank or 2 smoked ham hocks
- 2 large onions, chopped finely
- 10 cloves garlic, minced
- 2 green bell peppers, chopped finely
- 10 stalks celery, chopped finely
- 1 pound andouille sausage, chopped into 1/2" pieces
- 1 Tablespoon olive or vegetable oil
- 3 bay leaves
- 2 1/2 teaspoons dried thyme
- 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper (or more to taste)
- 1 teaspoon white pepper
- 1 teaspoon black pepper
- salt to taste (added at the end)
- hot cooked white rice, for serving
- Drain the soaking water from the beans. Put the beans and ham shank or hocks in a large stockpot (10-12 quarts) and cover with fresh water by an inch. Bring to a boil over high heat, then lower heat to maintain a low but constant simmer. Place a lid on the pot askew, so the pot is loosely covered. Simmer the beans for one hour, until starting to get tender. Keep checking the water level so the beans are always covered by about an inch of water--no more than that, though.
[Above: Beans about to come to boil for first hour of cooking.]
2. Meanwhile, chop the vegetables: if you have a food processor, now is the time to use it. The vegetable juices it will produce are fine to use in the beans!
3. In a large saute pan, heat the oil over medium-high heat. Saute the sausage until lightly browned, about eight minutes. Set aside.
4. In the same pan, saute the onion, garlic, bell pepper, and celery, without adding any oil. Scrape up and stir in any browned bits leftover from the sausage. If your vegetables are very juicy, they won't really "brown," and that's okay. Just let them get softened and warmed so the rawness gets cooked out. They're practically going to melt into the beans, anyway. Set aside in the skillet until the beans are finished with their first hour.
[Above: Beans finished with their first hour. Keep them covered with liquid; I just lifted them out of the water here for the photo.]
5. After the beans have cooked for an hour, add the vegetables and sausage to them. Add the seasonings at this point, except for the salt (it will prevent the beans from softening). We'll add it later. If necessary, add water to make the liquid level an inch above all the solids. This is usually the last time you'll need to be concerned with adding water. Set the lid back on the pot askew, and bring the beans to a boil again over high heat. When the liquid starts to boil, lower the heat again to maintain a slow but constant simmer, and cook for another hour. Come back and stir the pot from time to time to check the heat level and make sure the beans aren't sticking on the bottom.
[Beans with veggies, sausage, and seasonings added.]
6. The beans should be turning brown now, and we're going to help the thickening process along. Remove the lid and leave it off for the rest of the time. Keep the heat on a constant but low simmer, stir, and let them cook for another hour, stirring occasionally.
[Above: Beans at start of step 6, after second hour of cooking. Time to take the lid off.]
7. At this point, the beans should be almost the right consistency, but still a little on the soupy side. All the meat has fallen off the shank, and you can leave the bone in the pot or discard it at this point. This is when I usually turn off the heat, let them cool a little, and put them in the fridge until the next day. The beans thicken as they cool, so the next day, the extra liquid will be gone. Then I reheat them, taste and add salt (I usually end up adding about 2 Tablespoons, bit by bit--be earnest wth the salt! Make it work for you!), and they're just right. If you want to eat them the same day you cook them, just keep simmering until more liquid evaporates (maybe another 30 minutes to an hour), and taste and adjust the salt after that. Any subsequent days of reheating might require a little bit of water being added, because they'll continue to thicken. Be sure and check the salt level each day before you serve them.
[Above: After hour 3, they're much thicker, but still too soupy to serve. Keep cooking up to an hour or refrigerate and reheat tomorrow.]
Makes about 10 servings.
[Above: Beans on the second day, with pickled red onions. Ah, red beans. Theirs is a humble beauty.]
Pickled Red Onions
- 1 large red onion, sliced thinly or diced
- 1 1/2 cups white vinegar
- 4 Tablespoons sugar (increase the sugar if you like sweeter pickles--this amount leaves them pretty tangy)
- 1 stick cinnamon
- 4 whole cloves
- 6 whole black peppercorns
- 2 dried hot chiles
- 1 bay leaf
- Place onion in a glass or ceramic bowl with room for the hot pickling liquid.
- Bring the vinegar and sugar to a boil over medium heat, preferably in a pan that's not made out of aluminum (can cause a metallic-tasting reaction).
- When the vinegar comes to a boil, take it off the heat and pour it over the onions.
- Add the cinnamon, cloves, peppercorns, chiles, and bay leaf. Let cool for about 30 minutes at room temperature, then cover with plastic and refrigerate overnight. They'll be ready to eat the next day and will keep for about 6 days in the fridge. Use them in sandwiches and salads, too!