Don and I have only made one brief trip to the fabled French Quarter, but we loved the history, the cultures and the food…especially that Cajun and Creole cooking! The Louisiana city simmers with beauty and sizzles with passion. The traditional dishes are seasoned with myriad cultures—African, French, Native American, Spanish, and Caribbean.
As far as I can tell from a bit of research, the differences between Creole and Cajun cooking are about location—city folk vs country folk—and countries of origin—mainly French and Spanish compared to French Canadian. But the mix has multiplied many times, with the slave trade and immigration over time. Lines blurred and recipes, I’m thinking, blended. I know there are people in Louisiana who would have my head if they were reading this because folks in the Big Easy are not so easy-going when you use Creole and Cajun interchangeably in the kitchen. They can get pretty precise when it comes to these two culinary approaches. But I doubt they are reading, so I’m not worried. And here’s a favorite little story to stir the pot…
When I worked in higher education, one of my co-workers was this beautiful woman whose family had deep roots in the Bayou regions of Louisiana and in the famed city of New Orleans. Anisha was stunning in a classical “Cleopatra” way—long cornrows, big eyes, flawless mocha skin. The colors she wore flowed around her, creating this festival wherever she went. Anisha was the one person who looked me square in the eye one day and said, “Toni. You got frizzy hair, and you need to stop treating it like a white girl’s. Embrace it!” Then she suggested some oil. I’ve never looked back.
So when she became engaged, Anisha took her trembling fiancé down to Louisiana to meet THE FAMILY. To say she had a large, protective clan would be putting it mildly. And as they stood in the middle of a sprawling southern lawn amidst a sea of people ringed by cypress trees, a little girl with blonde pigtails and big blue eyes came flying into her arms, calling her “Auntie!” Her fiancé turned to her slightly confused and said: “Anisha, you have one big family, but who are all these white people?” She smiled and said to him, “They’re all my family.”
A rich culture can take a big pot to hold the many flavors the world brings to it. You won’t want the dish below without a classic mix of Cajun spices or missing onions or finding no tomatoes. When everybody sets the table, the meal becomes a community. When each ingredient is savored and honored, the dish becomes a blessing. When we expand our concepts of family, grace is global.
Continuing to stir that pot, my Red Beans and Dirty Rice is a little to one side of classic—meaning no andouille sausage or ham bone in the beans and no chicken livers in the dirty rice. It’s vegan…with an option for fish near the end, since Lent is here, after all. Does this mean you couldn’t add meat? Of course not! I’ll let you know when, d’accord?
Just a few more pointers before we start:
Ever wonder how red beans and rice became so popular in the South? According to the website New Orleans Restaurants, the tradition can be traced directly to smart, well-organized women. Well wouldn’t you know. Seems Mondays were wash days at the turn of the century in New Orleans, and housewives needed a dinner that could basically cook itself—yep, those put-them-on-the-stove-and-forget-them red kidney beans. “After soaking and draining them, housewives simply set the beans on the stove with fresh water to boil until tender, and then added a delicious helping of sautéed ‘trinity’–the quintessential Cajun/Creole cooking base of diced onions, celery and bell peppers. From here, it’s traditional to throw in Sunday dinner’s ham bone, letting it flavor the beans along with a bay leaf.”
Okay, so we aren’t doing exactly that, but we’ll be close. The method below approaches this dish sort of “in reverse,” cooking the beans and ladling them into a big skillet of those aromatics instead of adding the veggies and other ingredients to the big pot of beans. This is a method I picked up from Annie Somerville of the famous Greens Restaurant in California–she’s amazing and so are her beans. Why tamper with perfection, was my thinking.
Another switch is the beans themselves. Kidney beans are fine, and feel free to use them, if you wish, but I prefer Adzuki, a high-protein red bean of East Asian origin that tends to keep a better texture and flavor than kidney beans when the cooking is low and slow, in my opinion. And this is VERY low and slow. Plan for the day.
About the Cajun spice mix: mix your own. Yeah, I know: gotta buy all the spices, gotta look for the best you can buy (I suggest Penzey’s, if there is no local fresh source.), gotta blend it all together. Why not just buy a premade mix? In a word: control. Example: my garlic powder is fresh-made at Daydream Farm just a county over from where I live—huge flavor, no added salt, quite strong. My cayenne was a gift from my friend Sally—smoky with way more heat than one would expect from cayenne, and I LOVE it. So my classic Cajun spice mix tastes like MY Cajun spice mix. And yours should taste like yours. This “signature” touch is at the heart of those Mondays in New Orleans—each woman weaving her magic aromas and flavors and family secrets into her pot. Go the distance here. Make up a bunch, store the extra in a screw-top jar to use later—to sprinkle in your morning eggs, on your avocado at lunch and over your chicken at supper. Don used it as a rub on flank steak. See?
Finally, about that dirty rice…no pureed chicken livers here. Quite the departure from the traditional Cajun recipes. The “meat” in this dish is mushroom meat—YUM! And, yes, in case you were wondering, I am making my rice with Cahokia long-grain brown rice, using my favorite method of toasting and chilling it down. So if you want to make this rice a day ahead, you can. Just a thought. And note: I’ve used my friend Leo’s dried shitakes, soaking them overnight and using the delicious stock that develops to flavor my rice—so plan ahead for that.
Now…Put on that big pot of beans and laissez les bons temps rouler!
- Six tablespoons sweet paprika (I highly recommend Penzey’s Sweet Hungarian.)
- Two teaspoons cayenne (adjust depending on intensity and desired heat)
- Four tablespoons garlic powder (the best you can buy with no salt added)
- Two tablespoons onion powder
- Two tablespoons freshly crushed black peppercorns
- Two tablespoons ground white pepper
- Two tablespoons dried oregano
- Two tablespoons dried basil
- Two tablespoons dried thyme
- Two to three tablespoons peanut oil
- One small onion or shallot, minced
- Two to three cloves of garlic, minced
- Half-teaspoon coarse sea salt
- One cup dried mushrooms, soaked overnight in two cups filtered water
- One-half tablespoon Cajun spice mix
- One cup Cahokia Long-Grain Brown Rice
- Two cups Adzuki beans, soaked overnight, drained and rinsed
- Six to eight cups filtered water (enough to cover your beans by a couple inches)
- One to two teaspoons coarse sea salt
- One sprig each fresh sage and rosemary
- One bay leaf
- One two-inch stick Ceylon cinnamon (again, Penzeys)
- Two or three tablespoons olive oil
- One and one-half cups chopped yellow onion
- Four to five large cloves garlic, chopped
- One cup chopped celery (Adding some of the leaves is nice.)
- Two cups chopped bell pepper (A mix of green, red and even poblano works well.)
- Two cups tomatoes (either market fresh from your freezer or quality organic canned tomatoes)
- Two tablespoons Earth Balance Coconut Spread (You can also use a good coconut oil or butter, but I highly recommend Earth Balance Coconut Spread.)
- Two to three tablespoons Cajun spice mix
- Zest and juice from one large lemon
- One pound mild fish fillets, or one pound cleaned, deveined shrimp or one pound cooked and well-drained sausage (optional)
- Before you begin the dish, mix all your spices together for the Cajun spice mix. Put in a jar with a tight-fitting lid and store any extra in a cool, dry place away from light.
- Next prepare your rice, which can be completed one day in advance and kept chilled in the frig. Drain the soaked mushrooms well, reserving the stock. You need two cups stock, so add a bit of water if you come up short. Chop up the mushrooms.
- Heat the peanut oil in a medium, heavy-duty saucepan with a tight-fitting lid on medium-high heat. Add the onion or shallot, the mushrooms, garlic and a heavy pinch of sea salt with the Cajun spice mix. Sauté for a couple minutes. Add the rice, stirring constantly so that the rice toasts evenly. Once the rice begins to brown—about two minutes—quickly add the reserved mushroom stock and bring to a rapid boil. Give it one good stir, put on the lid, and turn the heat to low. Cook undisturbed until all the water is absorbed, between 40 to 50 minutes. Try not to peak.
- Once the liquid is completely gone, remove the rice from the heat and spread it out in a thin layer on a parchment paper-lined rimmed baking sheet. Stick in the frig to rapidly chill it down. It can remain in the frig up to 24 hours or until you need it for serving your red beans.
- Drain your beans that you have soaked overnight and give them a good rinse. Place them in a large Dutch oven; cover with the filtered water; add the salt, herbs and cinnamon stick. Bring to a boil and then reduce the heat to low. You will cook your beans anywhere from two hours to four hours, slow and steady. I like to put my pot at the back of the stove so that I can continue with my sauté about two hours into the bean cooking. The slower, lower and longer you cook the beans, the more flavor will develop in the beans and stock. If they lose too much water, add in a bit more, but you’re looking to develop a thick stock, so keep a light hand.
- In your largest chef skillet or wide stock pot, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Once shimmering, add your onions, garlic, celery and bell peppers with a good pinch of salt to taste. Cook, stirring occasionally for about 20 minutes, until the vegetables are soft and shiny.
- Add in the coconut spread and allow it to begin to melt. Then add the Cajun spice mix and the lemon zest (but not the juice). Stir until everything becomes quite aromatic. Now add the tomatoes and any juice the tomatoes contain to the sauté. Salt and stir. Continue cooking the vegetables for another 20 minutes or so, until some of the liquid evaporates and the mixture thickens slightly.
- Gradually begin to ladle in your simmering beans and broth. Go slow and incorporate everything as you go. If you find you have leftover liquid from your bean pot in the end, save it. You can use it to reheat leftovers or season vegetables or whatever. Save the stock! But throw out the cinnamon stick and the herb sprigs.
- Once you have the beans and stock incorporated into the pan, which should take a good 15-20 minutes, allow this mixture to marry for another half hour so that flavors combine and develop.
- At this point, you’ll want to think about getting your rice ready. Since it’s cold, you’ll need to heat it up. While red beans are traditionally poured over a mound of rice, there’s nothing to stop you from adding it into the beans and veggies, provided you have enough room in the pot. Another idea is to heat it gently in a low oven—say 300 degrees for 20 minutes. It shouldn’t dry out. Then you can serve it separately in traditional fashion.
- So, choice point: If you are vegan, you’re done! Turn off the heat; squeeze in the lemon juice, and ladle up a plate of rice and beans.
- If you love a good fish dish (and this is what we did in our house, using some local blue gill fillets) you can add thin fish fillets or even shrimp to your steadily simmering pot and poach the fish for about 10 minutes—shouldn't take too long. Then remove from the heat and squeeze in the lemon.
- If you are a meat lover and want your andouille, go for it—or better yet, go for local with pasture-raised sausage. You will need to cook the sausage through and drain well before you add it to the pot. Add and cook to heat through, about 10 minutes or so, add lemon juice and good to go.
The prep time includes all the preparation needed to complete each step, minus cooking time and the chill-down time for the rice. The cook time includes cooking the rice and putting it in the frig--the 50 minutes and the stovetop time for beans and saute--4 hours. While I'm being generous here, you want to allow the day for this. Don't rush. Servings refers to the beans. To serve more than 8 guests, you'll need to fix another cup of rice.
I know what you’re thinking: This dish will take all day. And, you’re right, if you look at it in total. But if the women of New Orleans could do it, AND do all that laundry BY HAND or RINGER WASHER, I’m pretty sure we can do it, too. There’s so much flavor here, so many options for every diner, and so many leftover possibilities. It’s really a time-saver and crowd-pleaser. Bien Sur!