What is red beans & rice?
The short answer: It's pretty self-explanatory.
Red beans & rice is a dish composed primarily of red beans and rice. But of course, as is often the case, the resulting dish is greater than the sum of its parts. And New Orleans-style red beans & rice is indeed a great dish.
In the standard preparation, red kidney beans are simmered with seasoning vegetables, one or more pork products, herbs and spices for hours until the ingredients meld into a creamy, savory thing of beauty that's served atop fluffy rice to form one of the defining dishes of New Orleans cuisine.
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Red beans & rice: It's kind of a big deal.
A meal of beans and rice might sound boring, but in New Orleans red beans & rice is something you get excited about. It's comfort food, rich with tradition and nostalgia.
If you grew up around here, you grew up on red beans & rice. You can order it everywhere from fine restaurants to neighborhood joints. It's served in school cafeterias from kindergarten through 12th grade. You find it at parties, festivals and sporting events. For many families, it's dinner once a week. While gumbo, jambalaya and poboys duke it out for the title of "the heart of New Orleans cuisine," red beans & rice is the soul, and it's uncontested.
How do I make red beans & rice?
Where did red beans & rice come from?
Some great dishes have great stories, whether they're true or not.
There was the card-playing earl who put bread around his meat to prevent greasy fingers and greasy playing cards and thus invented the sandwich. There were the Spanish colonists in New Orleans who tried to recreate their beloved paella using local ingredients and, in so doing, gave the world jambalaya.
Well, if anyone tells you a neatly plotted tale about the origin of red beans & rice, be skeptical. There are theories and guesses, but no single story.
Of course, cultures around the world have relied on beans and rice as an inexpensive form of nutritious sustenance for centuries. You'll find bean and rice dishes everywhere you look, from the rajma chawal of India, to the Congolese loso na madesu, to the Brazilian feijoada, to the daily lunches of Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and Haiti, to the countless arroz con frijoles variations across Mexico, Central America and South America.
As to the dish's advent in New Orleans, the two leading theories are that red kidney beans arrived 1) with West African slaves or 2) with refugees who'd fled the Haitian Revolution in the 1790s. No one can say exactly when the dish we now know as New Orleans-style red beans & rice took hold, but by the turn of the 19th century Creole cookbooks described preparations virtually identical to the way people make red beans & rice today.
Is it true you only eat red beans & rice on Mondays?
Not exactly. People will (and do) eat red beans & rice any and every day in New Orleans, but certainly more of it gets eaten on Mondays than any other day of the week. The explanation is tradition. There are two reasons red beans & rice became a Monday tradition.
First, families in 19th-century New Orleans would often have a ham as part of their more elaborate Sunday dinners. Red beans & rice was a great way to extend the value of the ham by using the hambone and leftover scraps of ham in the next night's meal.
Second, Monday was customarily laundry day in New Orleans households. Laundry in those days was laborious (not that it's a walk in the park today, but back then it could be an all-day chore that involved boiling clothes, using a hand crank to wring them out, and then some), and doing the wash didn't get you off the hook for having to put a meal on the table that night. So red beans & rice was an ideal washday dinner, because it's very hands-off. Essentially, you put everything in a pot, set it over a low flame and walk away for a couple of hours.
Doing laundry on Mondays is a bygone custom in New Orleans, but the red beans & rice tradition remains. Many restaurants serve it as a Monday lunch special, and many families have it at home every Monday night.
But, again, what's so great about red beans & rice?
Well, again, with red beans & rice the experience is greater than the sum of its parts. This isn't just a pile of beans on top of a pile of rice. Ideally it's beans that have been well-seasoned with onion, celery, bell pepper, garlic, thyme, bay leaf and cayenne pepper – not to mention smoky pork tasso, ham hock or sausage – simmered for a long time until you have a pot of rich, creamy perfection.
But in addition to the dish itself, there's also the importance of what the eater brings to a plate of red beans & rice. For some, a specific brand of hot sauce is required. For others, it's not red beans & rice without a big piece of cornbread or a chunk of French bread.
Some people always serve a green salad on the same plate so the tart vinaigrette can make its way into the red beans. Some people keep a jar of pickled onions in the fridge just for their red beans & rice. Others skip that step and sprinkle apple cider vinegar right on the beans.
There are restaurants in New Orleans known for serving fried chicken with their red beans & rice. At other places, you might get a fried pork chop or a link of smoked sausage. Clearly, ritual is at play here, and the way people eat red beans & rice is deeply personal.
Is there vegetarian/vegan red beans & rice?
Absolutely! While pork plays a big role in red beans & rice, it's a great dish to adapt for vegetarians and vegans.
In fact, while the dish prepared following traditional methods does benefit from ingredients like sausage, ham hock or pickle pork, you can make it without any animal products with delicious results. Some non-vegetarians report not being able to tell the difference between traditional red beans and meatless red beans. (Vegetarian Pro Tip: Try adding a dash of liquid smoke to the pot.)