Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Marie-Grace's Red Beans and Rice

My own twist on a classic from the Crescent City!

Like I've said, one of the best things about doing this blog is getting to try making things I never would have considered making on my own. We've gotten to try lots of food I'd never have thought about eating outside of a restaurant before, like the flan I made last weekend, or the nian gao. Anyone remember that one? Hands down the coolest thing I've made for the blog.

The thing is, sometimes my geographic location means making a truly authentic version of a classic dish is going to be difficult, prohibitively expensive, or just totally not going to happen. I'm not importing camas roots from Oregon for a Kaya post, for example. This one caught me off guard a little with how tricky it would be to find the exact right ingredients up north, but with a little creativity, I think we managed to pull this one off.

It's just not exactly your grandma's red beans and rice.

Red beans and rice is a classic staple of Creole cuisine. Red beans have been a part of Louisiana cooking since they were brought to the region by people fleeing a slave rebellion in Haiti. You'll find it on any Creole (or Cajun, since the terms are getting more and more blurred as the cuisine becomes popular outside of Louisiana) restaurant worth its salt, but it used to be a treat that was reserved for one day of the week. Any guesses which day that might be?

If you guessed Monday, you'd be right! Monday was laundry day in the New Orleans of yesteryear, and this is a dish that needs a long time to cook and can be left unattended to do so. A hambone from Sunday's supper could get tossed in with it along with any other vegetables or cured meats you might have on hand, and then all of it cooks until you're ready to serve it. Traditionally, these cured meats are tasso ham and andouille sausage, one of which is pretty easy to find. The other? Not so much.

I started working off a recipe from Emeril Lagasse because his recipe for shrimp creole worked out so well for me, even if I might have overdone it on the spices a bit. It turns out you can substitute tasso ham with Canadian bacon, so after letting a pound of rinsed beans soak overnight, I took a quarter pound of Canadian bacon and cooked it down in a large pot. When I went to add a diced green bell pepper, a couple chopped celery sticks and a whole yellow onion, I discovered we don't have any yellow onions in the house for once in my life. So I had to use... a red onion! The horror!

So this was already not wholly authentic, but I figured red onions don't taste that different from yellow onions, especially when they're cooked and I was already using Canadian bacon. I added in salt, pepper, and cayenne, and let it sit on the stove until the vegetables were cooked. Then came three bay leaves, two tablespoons of parsley, two teaspoons of thyme, and then I hit my next little ingredient snag.

Somehow we couldn't find andouille sausage. I guess everyone else in our town must have been making gumbo when we were out shopping. Because tasso ham is spicy and Canadian bacon isn't, my mom decided chorizo would be a decent substitution. I figured sure, I like chorizo, and it's not too far off the mark, right?

So, a half pound of that went into the pot with everything else, and soon was joined by an ingredient I'd never worked with before: ham hocks. These are just in it for flavoring, but they look pretty strange. They're basically a pork knuckle, and yes, you can eat them. They're actually pretty popular in Germany, apparently, and I saw a lot of people going to town on them in the beer halls we visited in Munich. The ham hocks and sausage need to brown up a bit before you add some chopped garlic, and then put in your beans.

Then comes ten cups of chicken stock. Let me tell you, that's a lot of stock! You bring it all to a boil, which takes a while, and then you leave it to simmer uncovered for two hours.

I basically left it alone for the full two hours, and then as instructed, I mashed up "one third" of the beans and left it to cook for another twenty minutes. I'm not really sure how you're supposed to tell if you've really got one third of them taken care of. The pot's pretty full, and it's difficult to see through the broth even before you start mashing the beans up, but I did my best.

I fished out the bay leaves and ham hocks, and got ready to serve this up. Traditionally, you put this over white rice and sprinkle chopped green onions on top. I didn't break tradition there, at least!

Despite not being entirely authentic, this was actually really good, and honestly didn't taste that different from the red beans and rice I've had. Admittedly, I'm far from an expert on red beans and rice, so I could be completely wrong, but everyone who tried it said it tasted more or less authentic, or at least close enough to hit all the right notes. I'd call that a win, even if I'm not sure it'd get me into the restaurant scene in New Orleans.

I do really like cooking at this point, and I've gotten a lot more confident in the kitchen, but I still don't get very creative when it comes to tweaking other people's recipes. I'm not sure if it's just me not feeling confident enough to experiment on my own, or just not having enough knowledge to instinctively know how to improvise or add my own flair to a recipe, but this was unusual for me. Sure, it was born by necessity, and my mom helped out, but it was pretty neat to try something a little different and have the result be a passable version of red beans and rice. Maybe next time, I can try to make the real thing!

Or just keep experimenting!

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