On the Trail of Traditional Creole Red Beans
If I’m going to spend a Monday afternoon making a big pot of red beans, then I want them to be New Orleans red beans, like so many versions I tasted when I was living and cooking in the Crescent City. As a chef, I take these matters very seriously. And I should also point out that this recipe took some considerable time and effort, and not just on my part. The very foundation for this dish — the Camellia Brand red beans themselves — were sent to me by a good friend, a native of New Orleans who insisted that there was simply no viable substitute.
Since Phil is usually correct about all things Creole, and because he was also willing to mail several pounds of dried beans to California, I naturally complied. As for the andouille, I ordered a few pounds of the “real deal” directly from Jacob’s World Famous in La Place (fortunately, Jacob’s will FedEx some of their heartier pork products, although their rival down the block, Bailey’s World Famous, does not offer shipping).
A few key New Orleans cookbooks (from left to right): Lena Richard, 1940; Paul Prudhomme, 1984; Leon Soniat, 1981; Mary Land, 1969.
Historically, red beans and rice is considered a “Creole” dish, meaning that its roots are located in the City of New Orleans (or thereabouts). Although the words “Cajun” and “Creole” have become practically interchangeable today, “Cajun” cooking implies a cuisine that was developed in the more rural areas of Louisiana, such as Opelousas, the native home of chef Paul Prudhomme (my former employer at K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen in the French Quarter).
Over the years, Prudhomme has authored several books regarding Louisiana cuisine, including 1987’s “The Prudhomme Family Cookbook,” in which he notes, “when I was growing up in Cajun country, red beans were just another dried bean, like pinto beans and lima beans — and Cajuns loved dried beans. But when I moved to New Orleans, I discovered that red beans were a cultural phenomenon, a tradition dating back for hundreds of years.”
As I began to formulate a recipe for authentic Creole red beans, “The Prudhomme Family Cookbook” was just one of several vintage New Orleans cookbooks that served as my reference points. In fact, my most trusted cookbook by Prudhomme is his very first, “Chef Paul Prudhomme’s Louisiana Kitchen,” published in 1984. I’ve returned to this seminal text so many times that my copy of the book automatically opens to the red beans recipe on page 190.
But Paul Prudhomme represents just one facet of New Orleans cuisine: One of my most revered resources for Creole cooking is the legendary Lena Richard, author of 1940’s “New Orleans Cook Book,” which provides amazing recipes for so many great Creole dishes.
Some of the other landmark cookbooks in my collection include a 1942 edition of the “Picayune Creole Cook Book” (published by the New Orleans Times-Picayune), a 1964 edition of “Brennan’s New Orleans Cookbook,” a 1981 edition of “La Bonne Cuisine” (a famous recipe compilation by the Women of All Saints’ Episcopal Church, New Orleans); and 1969’s “New Orleans Cuisine” by Mary Land.
Each of these books puts a slightly different spin on Creole red beans and rice, and aside from those already mentioned, there are several more historic New Orleans cookbooks that have also provided me with beaucoup insight. Rather than list them all here, I’ll mention them if they become pertinent.
The Cultural Context of Red Beans
As the folks from New Orleans know, red beans and rice is traditionally a Monday dish, with Monday also being the traditional wash day. As Leon Soniat points out in his 1981 cookbook, “La Bouche Creole,” dealing with the laundry took quite a bit of effort in the old days. So the idea was to multitask, since cooking red beans and doing laundry were chores that required several hours each. By getting the beans on the stove in early the morning, the lady of the house could then deal with the wash all day as the pot simmered.
Soniat describes this era the best: “Come Monday morning washday would begin. The procedure usually involved three large tubs — the tub in which the clothes had been soaking and in which they would be scrubbed on a washboard, another tub filled with water in which the clothes were rinsed, and the third tub to be filled with water to which a few spoonfuls of bluing had been added. A small tub of thick, sticky starch would be cooking on the stove. After being washed, some of the clothes were dipped into the starch and then hung out to dry.”
Among the dozens of red bean recipes that I’ve researched over the years, the cooking times can actually vary quite a bit, although I can assure you that no decent batch of red beans was ever made in 30 minutes. At the minimum, each recipe requires at least a couple hours of simmering, and each recipe also requires soaking the beans in cold water the night before. As it is, the subject of cooking dried beans is not a simple one, even though so few foods may seem as basic as the “staple” bean.
Beginning with the Beans
One of the main general issues of bean cookery involves salt, and more specifically, when it should be added to the cooking liquid. Conventional “wisdom” is that salt strengthens the skins of the bean, thus preventing them from breaking down during cooking. It turns out that this caveat is highly debatable, and possibly dead wrong. Famed food scientist Harold McGee asserts that salting the overnight soaking liquid actually helps to cook the beans more quickly (and season them more evenly, to boot).
Hey, if it works for McGee, then it works for me. End of story. Well, almost.
Aside from the salt debate, the “hardness” of your cooking water and the age of the beans are two other important factors in cooking time. For those folks who have noticeably hard water, the surplus minerals may inhibit the water’s ability to penetrate the bean during cooking. Also, older beans tend to take longer than newer beans, even if they both seem equally dry. Likewise, ingredients that are high in acid, such as tomatoes, or high in calcium, such as molasses, will also inhibit the breakdown of dried beans (which is why chili beans and baked beans are able to maintain their shape so well over time). However, since high-acid and high-calcium ingredients are not usually relevant to cooking authentic Creole red beans, this point is mostly moot.
Beyond the Beans
In comparing red bean recipes among several cookbooks from several decades, I tried to find common themes among the ingredients. In doing so, I considered five various elements in each recipe, beginning with (1) the cooking liquid, (2) the other vegetables besides red beans, (3) the preferred pork product, (4) the herb and spice profile, and finally, (5) the garnish.
Aside from listing some different cooking times, the method for each red beans recipe is strikingly similar: Simmer everything together until the beans are done, and then mash them up a bit, if necessary, to help them achieve their desired creaminess. This dish is simple by nature.
The real difference between each recipe has much more to do with ingredients, rather than techniques. Right off the top, however, I did notice that water is the standard cooking liquid in all of the recipes except for one (Prudhomme’s red bean recipe in “Prudhomme Family” calls for chicken stock as the preferred option, although his recipe in “Louisiana Kitchen” does not). And so, with water pretty much being the consensus choice as the cooking liquid, I shifted my focus to the other four elements:
Vegetables: The Complete Cajun Trinity?
Thanks to Emeril Lagasse, most of America has now become familiar with the “Holy Trinity” of Cajun cooking: onion, celery, bell pepper. This trio presents an American twist on the classic French mirepoix, which is onion, celery, and carrot. I noticed that many classic red beans recipes actually do not feature the entire Cajun trinity, perhaps revealing their origins in Creole culture (if red beans had been first embraced by the Cajun culture, we might’ve seen a distinct difference in this regard).
After perusing the ingredients for several different recipes, the only two that featured the entire Cajun trinity were those from Paul Prudhomme (no surprise, from a native of Opelousas) and Leon Soniat. One of the the very oldest recipes — from the “Picayune Creole Cookbook” — actually calls for carrots, although no bell pepper or celery; Lena Richard’s version features onion and bell pepper (but no celery); “La Bonne Cuisine” requires onion and celery (but no bell pepper, although this unique recipe does call for a can of tomato sauce); Mary Land’s recipe calls for onion only; “Brennan’s” calls for just onion and shallot (or what most non-Creole people would call a green onion).
The foundation for this dish is clearly debatable, although I should mention that, believe it or not, celery was once considered a luxury item in America, which may account for its absence in many of the older recipes. I say, if you’ve got the entire Cajun trinity in your pantry, then roll with it. Otherwise, make sure you at least have an onion. And omit the tomato sauce, no matter what.
Pork: Pickled Meat, and At What Point, Sausage?
One of the beautifully economical things about cooking red beans and rice on Mondays is that traditionally, many New Orleans families would often have a leftover ham bone from Sunday dinner. Rather than be discarded, the ham bone could be enlisted as a seasoning element on Monday. But there’s more to red beans than ham bones:
In Lena Richard’s recipe, she calls for a ham shank or “pickled meat” (pork shoulder, usually, that has been pickled and preserved through heavy brining). Leon Soniat calls for pickled pork or ham, while many recipes, including those from “Brennan’s” and the “Picayune Cook Book,” simply call for chopped ham outright.
Regardless of these variations, every single red beans recipe requires some form of seasoned pork product. Mary Land and Paul Prudhomme both call for ham hocks, which is also my favorite choice (assuming I had no leftover ham bone from Sunday dinner).
As one might expect, many recipes for red beans call for andouille sausage, although most do not. Of course, I’m inclined to add andouille whenever possible, since it’s so damn delicious. Few folks from Louisiana would disagree, although they might disagree on when to add the sausage (this debate presents one the of the few instances when red bean recipe methods do not form a general consensus).
Paul Prudhomme instructs readers to add the sausage during cooking, although in the very latter stages. Leon Soniat is absolutely adamant that sausage shouldn’t be added at all, instead opting to cook it separately and treat it more like a garnish.
Since some folks seem so against it, and since there are other pork products simmering in the liquid, I’m amenable to cooking the andouille separately.
Herbs and Spices: A Pumpkin Pie Profile?
Among the list of herbs and spices present in most recipes for red beans, garlic is by far the most common, and I believe that it’s a standard element across the board. A bay leaf is also standard for the most part, and thyme is practically universal as well. Aside from these three basic elements, Paul Prudhomme adds white pepper, oregano and cayenne; “La Bonne Cuisine” calls for garlic, bay leaves, and Worcestershire (extra points for umami); while 1975’s “The New Orleans Cookbook” (by Rima and Richard Collin) calls for garlic, bay, thyme, cayenne, and (oddly) dried basil.
By far, the most unique spice profile for red beans is the one provided by Leon Soniat, who in “La Bouche Creole” calls for garlic, bay leaf, thyme, cayenne, chili powder, allspice and cloves. These latter two “baking” spices are certainly intriguing in this context (and a clear nod to the West Indies), but I’m not too sure about going too far in that one particular direction; I’m willing to add a pinch of allspice, but I always fear that cloves can overpower a dish.
Garnishes: What’s the Final Creole Touch?
Although many cookbooks feature different approaches to Creole red beans, a surprising number of them agree upon the garnish, which is typically a couple tablespoons of chopped parsley (some recipes will have the parsley stirred into the beans just prior to serving, while other recipes recommend sprinkling the parsley over the top).
However, I’ve noticed that the really old school recipes call for a sieved egg as the garnish, which I admire not only for its tradition, but because sieved eggs bring a terrific color contrast to an otherwise monotone dish. With that general principle in mind, I opt for the best of both worlds: A sieved egg alongside the more contemporary chopped parsley (sprinkled, not stirred).
• • •
AUTHENTIC CREOLE RED BEANS
And so after much research, this is my composite recipe for red beans. Enjoy!
• Red beans, dried (preferably Camellia Brand), 1 lb.
• Ham hocks, four each
• Onion, one large, diced (about 2 cups)
• Celery, 3 ribs, diced (about 1 cup)
• Red bell pepper, one each, seeded and diced (about 1 cup)
• Green onion, tops only, one bunch, diced (about 1/2 cup)
• Garlic, minced, three toes
• Bay leaf, 3 each
• Dried thyme, 1/2T
• Dried oregano, 1/2T
• Allspice, 1/2t
• L&P Worcstershire sauce, 1T
• Salt and black pepper, to taste
• Crystal hot sauce, to taste
• Garnish: sauteed half-moons of andouille sausage, chopped parsley, and a sieved egg
1. Soak the red beans in salted cold water overnight (the solution should taste like slightly diluted sea water).
2. The next day, drain and rinse the beans thoroughly, and set them aside. In a large stock pot, combine 2 quarts of water with the ham hocks, Cajun trinity, garlic, bay leaves, thyme, oregano, black pepper, allspice, and Worcestershire. Bring liquid to a boil, and then simmer for 30 minutes.
3. Add the red beans to the pot, and allow them to simmer, perhaps for a few hours, until they finally begin to break apart naturally.
4. Once the beans have formed a creamy consistency, season them with salt and hot sauce, if necessary. Remove the ham hocks, and carve away the meaty portions. Dice the ham hock meat and return it to the red beans.
5. Serve the red beans over fluffy white rice, and garnish with half-moons of sauteed andouille sausage, chopped parsley, and a sieved egg.
During simmering, add as much water as necessary to the beans to help avoid scorching. I typically begin with two quarts of water, and if I leave the stock pot lid ajar, I sometimes don’t have to add any additional water (some steams escapes, but some drips back into the pot). Also, as the cooking liquid reduces, reduce the cooking temperature accordingly (it will require less and less heat to maintain a gentle simmer, especially as the beans release their starches).