Friday, October 8, 2010

Cooking to Save the Planet: Creole Red Beans and Rice

I didn't grow up with red beans and rice.  I didn't grow up with Creole or Cajun food at home, period, except on special occasions when my mother cooked a south Louisiana dish for which a friend had given her a recipe, or when one of her friends from that region cooked a typical Cajun or Creole dish and brought it to us.

We did know and love Creole and Cajun food, however.  The southern and eastern half of Arkansas, in which my roots lie--the Deep South part of the state that borders on Mississippi and Louisiana--has always been closely connected to New Orleans in a myriad of ways.  During the period in which cotton was king, the many cotton planters of that part of the state marketed their cotton in New Orleans, by way of the rivers running through Arkansas that feed into the Mississippi.  As letters and diaries from this period in the southern part of Arkansas in which I grew up tell prospective new settlers, New Orleans was at the doorstep of south Arkansas plantations, via the river system that brought farm products downriver to New Orleans markets, and New Orleans goods upriver.

Perhaps because my father was Louisiana-born, we spent many of our vacations in New Orleans, where my parents had also honeymooned.  And eating was one of our primary objectives when we went on vacation there--going to the seafood restaurants lining the New Orleans shore of Lake Pontchartrain, to some of the old Creole restaurants in the French Quarter like Tujague's or Brennan's in the Garden District, and to the many ethnic restaurants around the city that combine Creole and Italian styles of cooking like Mandina's in Mid-City or Pascal's Manale in the Garden District.

But though I had eaten many Creole and Cajun dishes growing up, I didn't learn to cook south Louisiana food until I went to school in New Orleans in the late 1960s, and then continued living there into the latter part of the 1970s, returning to live and work in New Orleans in the mid-1980s.  One of the significant opportunities I had during those years was to learn Creole cooking first-hand from two superb cooks, women who had been raised in or near the French Quarter, who had learned to cook Creole food from their own mothers.

I keep saying "Creole and Cajun."  To many people outside south Louisiana, the distinction between Creole and Cajun food blurs and is, for all intents and purposes, non-existent.  South Louisianans themselves, however, see a sharp distinction between the kind of French cooking done in New Orleans and the cooking of the country areas between New Orleans and the Texas border, the Cajun heartland.

The Creole cooking of New Orleans is sophisticated French cooking which self-consciously uses French techniques and culinary terms, even as it adapts traditional French cuisine to the gumbo culture of New Orleans, with its mix of Spanish, French, Caribbean, African, and native American ingredients and styles of cooking.  The Cajun cooking of southwest Louisiana is country French cooking that pays less attention to complex sauces than Creole cookery does, and emphasizes hearty flavors and the ability to stretch a few ingredients into a large meal (think jambalaya, for instance) to feed big families of hard-working people.

Traditional Creole cooking is not at all the excessively piquant cooking now known as "Louisiana-style" around the nation.  If the use of hot peppers as a predominant seasoning has any place at all in traditional south Louisiana dishes (and this is debatable), that touch is far more likely to be found in Cajun kitchens than in Creole ones.  (And I say it's debatable even there, since many Cajuns with deep roots in southwest Louisiana are horrified at the reduction of their country French cooking to mouth-burning "blackened" messes of this or that popularized--to their profit--by chefs like Paul Prudhomme and Emeril Lagasse in the latter decades of the 20th century.  The technique of blackening--and the hyper-use of hot seasonings, many Cajun cooks insist--was unknown to Cajun cooking until that period.)

And so the two women who taught me to cook Creole food in  New Orleans in the 1970s: one of these had a French (Creole French-Spanish, that is) mother who was born, as my mentor also was, in the French Quarter; the other was from a lace-curtain Irish family with deep historic roots in New Orleans, which had lived at various points in the French Quarter.  And it was from these two superb cooks that I learned to make red beans and rice.

Here's what they taught me: the point of a "finished" dish of red beans and rice is to have a creamy, rich, savory stew of beans and vegetables by the end of a long workday, which will be served for dinner with a dish of rice.  And a mixed salad with a nice, sharp vinaigrette.  Along with crusty French bread and butter.

Red beans and rice was traditionally cooked in New Orleans on Mondays, when the bone and scraps from a Sunday ham were available to season the beans as they cooked all day long, and when housewives traditionally did their washing, and didn't have time to fuss over the stove all day long as they cooked the evening meal.  Early in the day, in a large soup pot with a heavy bottom, one  starts the dish by sautéeing in a bit of olive oil a bell pepper and several stalks of celery, minced fine.  As these begin to wilt, add to the pot a finely chopped onion, and finally several toes of minced garlic.

When these vegetables have all cooked tender, add a pound of well-washed and well-picked (picked through for stones and dirt, that is) red kidney beans.  Some folks soak these overnight to shorten the cooking time.  Neither of the Creole cooks who taught me to cook red beans and rice did that.  I've heard, too, of adding a pinch of baking soda to neutralize the flatulent effects of the beans.  But I've read that this diminishes the vitamin content of the final dish, so I have never taken this step.

With the beans, add water or stock to cover, and if you wish, a ham bone and/or some chopped ham, sausage, or what's called "pickle meat" (pork cured in brine) in New Orleans.  This is one of the points at which piquancy can, if you wish, be added to the dish--and may be added in Cajun renditions of red beans and rice, since many Cajun chaurice or andouille sausages are seasoned with hot peppers, as is tasso, a cured piece of ham that is increasingly popular in Cajun dishes, which is seasoned with garlic and cayenne.

Along with the water and stock, add as well some black pepper, chopped parsley, thyme, and several bay leaves according to your taste.  Salt is usually added only at the point that the beans have begun to cook soft, and it's a good idea to wait on salting the dish in any case, if you're using meat that has salt in it.  Thyme is one of the touches that separates Creole from Cajun cooking: it's used more commonly in New Orleans kitchens than in those of southwest Louisiana, and is often added in stages as a dish like red beans and rice cooks, to keep pointing up the flavor of the dish with herbal accents at different stages of the cooking process.

And that's it for the preparation--well, that's almost all you need to do.  When the stock reaches a boil, turn the pot as low as you can, cover it, and let it simmer for several hours, until the beans have begun to cook into a tender mush.  The final texture for which individual cooks aim can vary widely in south Louisiana.  Many cooks prefer their red beans and rice to be something like a dish of beans served over rice, with a rich liquid gravy seasoning the beans.  Others prefer a creamier texture, in which the individuals beans have to a certain extent cooked into the stew of beans and vegetables before this stew is served over the rice.

Both of my Creole mentors tended in the latter direction and used the following simple technique to achieve it: as the beans began to cook tender, they took some of them, perhaps half of the beans in the pot, and mashed them with a wooden spoon against the side of the pot as the beans simmered.  They then stirred the mashed beans into the pot and let them thicken the "gravy" of the pot of beans as the beans cooked.  If you use this method, you'll want to take care, of course, not to let the thickening mixture scorch on the bottom of the pot.

And you may want to add more water or stock if the beans thicken too much.

Another final touch--again, one that is very typical in Creole kitchens--that both of my Creole cook-teachers taught me was to add a persillade to this and to almost any savory dish cooked Creole style.  Their persillade typically consisted of a final generous handful of chopped fresh parsley mixed with several toes of chopped garlic, and sometimes a bit of thyme, stirred into the pot right before the beans were served.

You'll also have wanted to cook your rice at some point in the day, too.  About that, I have few hints, except to say that Creole cooks prefer their rice with the grains standing separate when they are cooked--as tidewater South Carolina cooks do as well.  And so the Creole cooks who taught me to cook red beans tended to boil their rice in more water than most recipes dictate, and then to drain the tender rice through a colander.  One of the two added sliced lemon as the rice boiled, to keep it white, she maintained.  Both then added a bit of butter to the drained rice, which they tossed with it after it was drained, to help keep the grains of rice separate.  To heat the rice for serving, both put it into a colander and steamed it briefly over water.

As I've said, all  that the dish of red beans and rice needs (and all it has traditionally had as an accompaniment on many Creole tables in New Orleans) is a mixed salad with a sharp, garlicky vinaigrette to which some Creole mustard has been added, and some crusty French bread and butter.  It's not unheard of for people, chez nous, to eat their salads first and then pour the vinaigrette over their beans and rice.  For those who like a taste of cayenne, a bottle of south Louisiana hot sauce is often on the table.

Nutritionists have noted that combining beans and rice enhances the value of the protein in legumes.  Some folk wisdom in the Spanish and Caribbean cultures that evidently brought this dish to New Orleans seems to have fathomed the nutritional rightness of that combination, as native Americans (and their counterparts in Mexico) also fathomed the rightness of combining beans with corn, producing the perduring basis for many Mexican dishes as well the traditional Anglo South dish, beans and cornbread.

These are rich dishes--rich in flavor, in nutritional value, in their ability to feed many mouths well, and rich in history--that deserve to be celebrated.  Eat and enjoy.  And as you do so, think about how much better this meal is for you than a McDonald's hamburger and fries.
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