I’ve never been to New Orleans, but my first Seattle roommate was a recent transplant who plunged me headfirst into its culture. With rabid enthusiasm he’d leap out of his chair, yank the needle off whatever album was playing at the time, and plop another record in its place.
‘You’ve never heard The Wild Tchoupitoulas?’ he’d cry. ‘Man that was the Neville Brothers at their best. It just wouldn’t be N’awlins without them!’ The room would swell with that Cajun rhythm, and before long we’d be dancing around the room. It was that good.
He also turned me on to Creole food. Jambalaya, gumbo, ‘Po’boy’ sandwiches and crawfish that were spiced to his demanding palate. And Red Beans and Rice, cooked long and slow to develop the flavor. Made with that trinity of Creole cooking: celery, green pepper and onion. Mm, Mmmm.
Of course, Chuck’s Red Beans would always have ham hocks in them; I’ve chosen to leave them out. Either way, these tasty beans are just what the doctor ordered. In fact, it wouldn’t be Mardi Gras without them!
Vegetarian Red Beans and rice
Enough for 6 hungry people
2 cups dry Small Red Beans, soaked overnight
2 medium yellow onions
4 sticks celery with leaves
1 green bell pepper
4 Tablespoons olive oil
6 cups water
2 teaspoons of salt
½ teaspoon of freshly ground black pepper
1 ½ teaspoons of dry thyme
1 ½ teaspoons of oregano
¾ teaspoon cayenne pepper
3 cloves garlic, pressed or finely chopped
8 ounces of tomato sauce
Soak the beans: In a large pot, cover beans with enough cold water to submerge them by 2″. Cover the pot tightly and let the beans soak for 8 hours or overnight.
Heat 4 Tablespoons of oil in a 12” skillet. Sauté the onion, celery and green pepper over medium-high heat for 5 minutes, turning occasionally with a spatula. Veggies are done when the pepper lightens in color and the onion is translucent. For best flavor, do not brown.
Put it all together in a pot: Drain the beans. In a large oven-proof casserole or dutch oven, put the beans and 6 cups of cold water and stir in the sautéed veggies. Now add the salt, black pepper, oregano, thyme, cayenne pepper and garlic.
Bake in a conventional oven: Preheat oven to 325°. Put beans on the center rack and bake for 2 ½ hours covered, stirring every half hour or so. After 2 ½ hours, add the tomato sauce and remove the lid from the bean pot. Cook for a further hour, until beans are tender.
Bake in a woodfired oven: This kind of cooking is great for the day after you’ve had your oven hot for pizza or bread, still warm with residual heat. Build a small fire to one side and, after about 45 minutes, put the beans on the other side. Add small to medium branches to keep the fire low and put the door in place to keep the flame down, leaving a 2” crack on one edge of the door as a vent. At this low heat, you can use an oven thermometer to check that your oven heat is as close to 325° as possible.
Bake for 2 ½ hours covered, stirring every half hour or so and turning the bean pot around each time. After 2 ½ hours, add the tomato sauce and remove the lid. Cook for a further hour, until beans are tender.
Time to celebrate: Make a pile of rice according to package directions. Put a scoop or two of rice in a bowl and top with Red Beans. Now get out your favorite Neville Brothers music and prepare to PARTY! It’s Mardi Gras after all!
Meatatarian note: For a meaty version of this dish, add 2 pounds of smoked ham hock to the pot and cut back on the olive oil. On the other hand, this vegetarian version makes a great side dish to Seattle Smoked Country Style Ribs, which I’ll be cookin’ up for Mardi Gras as well. It’s all good!