During Katrina, red beans and rice reminded me of what I love about cooking: a simple, hearty plate of food can bring someone comfort under any circumstance. I matured as a chef as I handed out those Styrofoam bowls of beans, cobbled together with not much more than salt and the spices we could scrounge up.
Now red beans are a part of my weekly routine, but my wife, Emily, makes them very creamy and rich, deeply flavored with smoked ham hock and sausage and spiked with Tabasco. Every Monday, she starts them on the stove by noon, and they cook for hours, until our friends arrive. It’s a come-one, come-all kind of ritual, so naturally, she makes a huge batch. Leftovers taste wonderful all week.
I use red-bean nights to celebrate our life and friends, remembering a time when the future was less sure. That’s part of why we don’t hold back on the rice, which is loaded with butter, olive oil, and soft onions. If you’re taking the time and effort to make beans this good, the rice should match (though, of course, you can make rice with only water, or with half the fat, if nutrition is a pressing concern). Red beans are a nourishing meal anytime, but they’re best when you go all out.
Prep time 260 minutes
Cook time 10 minutes
Yield: Serves or Makes 10-12
Drain the beans, and set them aside.
Warm the olive oil in a large heavy-bottomed pot over medium heat. Add the bacon, and cook, stirring occasionally to break it up, for 6 to 8 minutes, until it’s golden.
Meanwhile, chop one of the onions. When most of the bacon’s fat has rendered, add the onion to the pot, along with the celery, bell pepper, and one of the bay leaves, stirring well to coat everything with the fat.
Continue to cook, stirring occasionally, until the onion is translucent and the celery and bell pepper just start to soften. Stir in the paprika and cayenne, allowing the spices to toast for a minute or so.
Add the beans, ham hock, and stock. Increase the heat to high to bring everything up to a boil, then skim any foam from the top of the pot, reduce the heat to low, and cover with the lid. Let it cook, low and slow, for at least 3 hours, until the beans are falling apart. It’s not a soup, but there should be enough broth so that you see some movement in the pot; top it off with more stock if you need to.
Fish the ham hock out of the pot, pull all the meat off the bone, give it a rough chop, and add it back to the pot; slice the sausage about 1/4 inch thick and add that, too. Season with 2 teaspoons salt, Tabasco, and sugar. (Yes, sugar—it might seem odd, but it gets all the ingredients to play together nicely.) Continue to cook, covered, over low heat, for at least another ½ hour, until it all starts to pull together. At this point, if you prefer, you can leave it alone for a couple of hours, returning just to stir occasionally.
While that happens, make the rice: First, chop the other onion. Combine the canola oil and butter with the other bay leaf in a separate pot over medium heat. Once the butter melts, add the onion and remaining 2 teaspoons salt.
As soon as the onion is translucent, stir in the rice. Defer to the package instructions for a water ratio; for 1 pound (about 2 cups) of jasmine rice, I add 3 cups of water. Increase the heat to high, and bring to a simmer; then decrease the heat to low, cover, and cook for another 15 minutes or so, until it’s tender.
Remove the rice from heat and let it rest for 10 minutes with the lid on, then fluff it with a fork. Remove and discard the bay leaves from both pots. Serve red beans over a scoop of rice, and sprinkle with scallions.