Published January 1, 2010.
In New Orleans, cooks transform a dollar’s worth of dried beans into a creamy, smoky stew. So why is it so hard to translate this dish once you cross the state line?
Red beans and rice is a Monday night tradition in New Orleans, but some of its key ingredients are nearly impossible to find outside Louisiana. Also, most recipes are plagued by blown-out beans, bland or pasty sauces, and flavors that never quite come together.
We wanted a smoky, spicy, creamy stew that stayed true to its Cajun roots and had a reasonable preparation time.
Successful red beans and rice starts with the right beans. Camellia Brand dried red kidney beans, the New Orleans staple, are tender and ultra-creamy, but only available by mail order for those outside of the Big Easy. We found that small red beans (also called Mexican red beans) were readily available at the supermarket and have a smooth interior texture and skins sturdy enough to stay put during cooking. Soaking the beans overnight in a saltwater brine made the texture even better and seasoned them all the way through.
True Cajun red beans are cooked with sausage, ham, and pork shoulder, and we were determined to get a similar depth of meaty flavor into our beans. The sausage part was easy. Coarse-textured, heavily smoked Andouille provided depth and complexity. Bacon made a suitable substitute for the requisite but hard-to-find tasso (pork shoulder coated in spices and hot-smoked until it resembles jerky), especially when we added garlic, paprika, cayenne pepper, and black pepper. And to our surprise, splashing in some vinegar an hour into cooking and again just before serving added the brightness of pickled pork shoulder, an obscure product we’d be hard-pressed to find outside of Louisiana.
Finally, we worked on sharpening our dish’s flavors. Many Cajun dishes start with a trio of sautéed green peppers, onions, and celery, but when we used equal parts of each vegetable, we found that the celery and peppers were too prominent. Fine-tuning the ratio so that each vegetable stood out without one overwhelming the rest gave us better results. We also changed the ratio of chicken broth and water in our cooking liquid to amounts that added complexity to the beans but mellowed the chicken flavor. Fresh thyme and bay leaves finished our accessible reworking of a Cajun classic.list of recipes