Fat Tuesday Red Beans & Rice - No. 192
Let’s get a jump on Lent by cooking some beans, plus King Cake news!
IT’S FAT TUESDAY, THE DAY WE COOK pancakes for dinner, fry up doughnuts and fritters, and slice into King Cake. But if that’s too much excess, just simmer up some red beans.
I’ve written so much on King Cake at Between the Layers, and I’d love to mention my King Cake just won a bake-off over at Book Riot! Woohoo! You can read about it here.
But this Fat Tuesday, I lean into savory—can you believe it?—and share a recipe unique to New Orleans but applicable anywhere because it’s cheap and delicious.
This red beans and rice recipe comes from the late Daisy Fuller Young, a New Orleans native who was the mother of former Atlanta mayor Andrew Young. I received the recipe from her family many years ago when I was the food editor of the Atlanta newspapers. With her pot of beans simmering on the stove in the background and with the assistance from some of my favorite cookbooks, I dive into a red beans and rice story today.
‘’Red Beans and Rice-ly Yours’’ - Louis Armstrong
Back when hams were baked for Sunday dinner and washing was done on Monday, red beans were simmered along with that leftover ham bone in a large iron pot.
New Orleans historian Liz Williams writes in her 2013 book, New Orleans: A Food Biography, ‘’A person who has to tend a washtub and heat hot water all day could tend a pot of red beans... It would also allow the efficient use of fuel, for when else would there be a time when a fire would be tended all day?’’
So Mondays evolved into red beans and rice day in New Orleans, and that’s when you’d find them simmering in homes, school cafeterias, and restaurants. Although with tourists roaming the streets in search of red beans and rice today, they’re cooked most any day.
New Orleans’ favorite brand of the little red beans, which are smaller than kidney beans and cook up creamy and yet hold their shape, is Camellia. If you visit New Orleans, be sure to stop in a Rouse’s market and grab several bags to take home. But if not, you can buy the very lovely small red Domingo Rojo beans from Rancho Gordo.
The traditional liquid for red beans and rice is simply water because you’ve got a piece of ham in the pot to flavor things up. And authors Rima and Richard Collin write in their 1975 The New Orleans Cookbook that the marrow from the ham bone gives the beans their distinctive creamy, almost baby food-like texture. They are purists and insist you need a ham bone, and if you can’t find a bone-in ham you can buy a ham bone from a butcher and keep it in the freezer until you want to simmer a pot.
But I didn’t use a ham bone and instead made use of a bit of holiday country ham still in my freezer. Daisy Young used a ham hock. Her trick to imparting a creamy texture was to mash a portion of the beans against the inside of the pot and release them back into the broth. She never, ever used flour to thicken the juices.
Recipes differ as to what type of meat to add to the pot depending on where you call home. In New Orleans, Creole red beans are simmered with pickled pork, according to Lena Richard in her 1939 Lena Richard’s Cook Book. ‘’Just before ready to serve add parsley and salt and pepper to taste,’’ she instructs. But out in the country, ‘’In Madisonville, where I grew up,’’ writes Leah Chase in The Dooky Chase Cookbook (1990), ‘’we would use smoked ham to add flavor to our red beans.’’
Toni Tipton-Martin says in her 2019 book, Jubilee, that author Freda DeKnight once recalled the strong connection between New Orleans, red beans, and jazz trumpeter Louis Armstrong. Red beans are brightly flavored with spices, and seasoning them is an art. Armstrong was known to say, ‘’old man, season them well! Add the right spices at the right time, and man, you have a ‘Date with a Dish’ that’s just about the greatest.’’ DeKnight would go on to name her famous cookbook just that, Date with a Dish.
Louis Armstrong was known for his signature salutation, ‘’Red Beans and Rice-ly Yours.’’ And, if you love trivia, I’ll share this: He just so happened to be a dental patient of Daisy Young’s husband, Andrew Young, Sr.
No wonder red beans and rice are a religious experience. They contain the holy trinity of seasoning…onion, celery, and green pepper.
Besides the connection to Mardi Gras, red beans and rice offer something else—the best aroma ever. It is perfuming my house while I write this letter to you. Is it the green pepper, the onion, or the celery, or all of the above? Together they are known as the holy trinity. Only in New Orleans!
After the trinity is briefly sautéed, I add that piece of country ham and know salt seeps out of it as the beans cook. So I don’t add any extra salt until the end of cooking because salt makes beans tough. Rancho Gordo suggests you only add salt to dried beans once they cook long enough to soften.
But cayenne, red pepper pods, fresh or dried thyme, parsley, bay leaf, they have no effect whatsoever on bean tenderness, so add them as often as you like during the process.
A note about water: I pre-soak beans overnight, which shortens the cooking time. And I begin with about 6 cups of water but keep 2 cups in reserve for adding to the pot as they cook down.
And I stir the pot every half hour, and in about 2 1/2 to 3 hours, really depending on whether or not you pre-soaked the beans and the heat of your stove, you will have creamy cooked beans and enough ‘’gravy.’’ If you’ve added meat to the pot, shred it into smaller pieces and stir it back in. Or, if you haven’t, now’s a good time to slice some cooked smoked sausage and sear it off in an iron skillet to serve to the side.
Spoon the beans with meat and gravy alongside steamed rice. And sprinkle with minced fresh parsley or green onions if you’re feeling fancy.
Don’t forget the hot sauce! Laissez les bons temps rouler!
Here’s a photo from BTL subscriber Leslie who baked my King Cake to share with her co-workers today. I am loving the baby!
Happy Fat Tuesday!
- xo, Anne
How are you celebrating/cooking for Mardi Gras?
Coming this Thursday for Subscribers…
Our second installment of Cake in Other Places. Has it been a year since Russia invaded Ukraine? I am marking the date with a Ukrainian apple cake and hopes of peace. Plus, I share an update on our Project Preserved Lemons.
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Daisy Young’s Red Beans and Rice
Daisy Fuller Young made frequent trips to visit her sons and their families in Atlanta, and it was on Christmas Eve when she was asked to cook her red beans and rice. According to oral histories recorded by her son, former Atlanta mayor Andrew Young, her grandmother was enslaved. The first in her family to receive a college education, Daisy Young was an elementary school teacher in New Orleans before marrying and raising a family. She seasoned the red beans with a generous stick of butter after cooking, which I do not do. Instead, I butter the rice or serve with buttered garlicky bread.
Makes 8 servings
Prep: 20 to 25 minutes
Cook: 2 1/2 to 3 hours
1 pound dry small red beans
Boiling water to cover, for soaking
3 tablespoons light olive or vegetable oil
1 large onion, finely chopped
2 ribs celery, finely chopped
1 green pepper, cored, and finely chopped
4 cloves garlic, sliced
2 bay leaves
Sprigs of fresh thyme or parsley
Black pepper, to taste
1 fist-size chunk of smoked ham or ham hock
8 cups (2 quarts) water
Kosher salt, to taste
Hot pepper flakes, or hot sauce
Steamed, buttered rice
Rinse the beans with cold water, and pick over them, discarding any debris. Place them in a large heat-proof bowl. Pour boiling water over the beans to cover by 2 inches. Let rest uncovered overnight.
The next day, pour the oil into a large soup pot, and add the onion, celery, and green pepper. Turn the heat to medium and sauté until soft, 3 to 4 minutes. Add the garlic, bay leaves, fresh herbs, pepper to taste, and ham. Drain the beans, and add to the pot. Pour in 6 cups of the water, bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to low, cover the pot, and let simmer until tender, 2 1/2 to 3 hours.
Check frequently to make sure the beans are covered with water, adding the last 2 cups as needed. In the last 15 minutes of cooking, mash a quarter of the beans against the side of the pot with a large spoon and stir them back into the broth. Shred the meat and return to the pot. Season with salt to taste. Add hot pepper flakes, if desired, or serve with hot sauce.
To serve, ladle into bowls and serve with a big spoonful of rice.
Congratulations on the King Cake, Anne! I just looked at Book Riot 👏👏👏Today is Packzi Day in Chicago, deep-fried cream or fruit-filled doughnuts dusted with powdered sugar. Tomorrow, penance 😂
I'll be testing for dessert tonight a English pancake recipe from the 18th century that includes orange blossom water and double cream in the original recipe!