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?
Start with a pound of dry red kidney beans (to yield about six servings). Soak the beans in water for a few hours or overnight. Drain water. Slice a pound of smoked sausage into half-inch rounds. Chop one large yellow onion, four ribs of celery and one small green bell pepper. Mince a clove of garlic. (If you'd like to skip all the chopping, try Zatarain's Red Bean Seasoning Mix.) Heat a couple tablespoons of butter, oil or bacon fat in a medium to large stockpot or Dutch oven. Brown the sausage. Add the onion, celery and bell pepper and sauté until translucent. Stir in the garlic and sauté a minute longer. Add drained beans, stir to combine and pour in enough water to cover the bean-sausage-vegetable mixture by a half-inch or so (6-8 cups of water). Add a teaspoon of salt, a half-teaspoon of black pepper, a pinch of cayenne pepper, a pinch of dried thyme and one bay leaf. (Note: Red beans & rice is a wonderful slow cooker dish. This is the point in the recipe when you would transfer to your slow cooker, and cook for 4 hours on high or 8 hours on low, checking the water level to make sure the beans on top don't dry out.) Bring to a boil, then reduce flame to low and cover the pot. The water should be at a light simmer. If the boil picks up in intensity, reduce heat further. Maintain the low simmer for about two hours, checking water level (there should always be liquid covering beans) and adding more if needed, until beans are tender and water has transformed into a creamy sauce. For a thicker consistency, use the back of your spoon to mash some of the beans against the side of the pot and stir to incorporate. When you're happy with the consistency, taste and add more salt, cayenne and black pepper as needed. Serve over hot rice with salad and French bread (or Zatarain's Cheddar Jalapeño Cornbread).
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.)
The most famous fan.
It may be an exaggeration to claim that everyone in New Orleans loves red beans & rice, but let's say that if you don't love it, you are a member of a tiny minority. Still, few people love red beans as much as Louis Armstrong loved red beans. The late trumpet virtuoso, jazz innovator and global celebrity claimed red beans & rice as his favorite dish - so much so that when he'd write letters, he didn't sign them "Love, Louis" or "Sincerely, Louis"; often, he'd write "Red beans and ricely yours, Louis." In his memoir, Satchmo, he wrote, "As for red beans and rice, well, I don't have to say anything about that. It is my birth mark."
Can I make red beans & rice where I live?
Yes! One of the great things about the dish is it uses common ingredients. Every ingredient you need would be available in any grocery store.
What ingredients do I need to make red beans & rice?
A typical recipe for red beans & rice would include: dried red kidney beans, onion, bell pepper, celery, garlic, salt, black pepper, cayenne pepper, thyme (dried or fresh), bay leaf (dried or fresh), and the pork product of your choosing (a hambone, ham hocks, a smoked pork sausage like andouille or kielbasa, salt pork or pickle pork), and of course rice.
What kind of rice should I use?
Any kind you like. In New Orleans, most people use a standard long-grain white rice, but many prefer brown rice. Jasmine rice works well, too. Whatever type of rice you prefer or happen to have on hand will likely be suitable for red beans & rice.
How long does it take to make red beans & rice?
Count on a cook time of about two hours, but most of that time you won't need to be paying attention to it. (For a faster version, you can try Zatarain's Red Beans & Rice Mix. Or for the FASTEST, Zatarain's Red Beans & Rice Cup.)
Do I need any special tools or equipment to make red beans & rice?
Nope. Just standard kitchen items – a stockpot or Dutch oven, a long-handled spoon for stirring, a knife for chopping, a smaller pot for the rice. Basic stuff.
Is red beans & rice good for you?
Without a doubt. The dish is a good source of fiber and protein. One serving of a standard red beans and rice preparation contains a whopping 15 grams of fiber and 23 grams of protein. In addition to fiber and protein, red beans are also a good source of folate, which is associated with a reduced risk of heart attack and stroke, as well as calcium, potassium and magnesium.
Is red beans & rice spicy?
It's as spicy as you want it to be! For the most part, the spice level in red beans & rice is connected to the amount of cayenne pepper used. So if you like it spicy, add a little more cayenne. If you prefer it mild, use less or none. (Spice can come from other places, too. For example, if a spicy sausage is used, that spice can leach out into the beans. So just be aware of what's going into the pot!) Of course, it varies from cook to cook but, generally speaking, red beans & rice is not considered a spicy dish.
How much should I make?
A dependable rule to follow is a pound of dry beans will serve six. If those people are hungry, four might be more accurate. So, it's usually a good idea to make more than you think you need. Beans are inexpensive after all, and leftover red beans freeze exceptionally well! Frozen red beans, sealed in a plastic container or bag, can last up to six months in your freezer.