Need food for Mardi Gras?

Published 11:59 pm Friday, February 20, 2009

Mardi Gras is Tuesday and when I think of Mardi Gras, I think New Orleans. One cannot think of New Orleans without thinking of red beans and rice. I have been cooking red beans and rice a lot here lately. They are cheap and with a spicy sausage they are tasty. Red beans and rice is a Monday tradition throughout south Louisiana, but particularly in New Orleans. Years ago, before the age of the washing machine, Monday was wash day, and a good day to slowly simmer beans on the stove. Sunday’s leftover ham bone was the perfect thing to add a heavenly flavor to the pot. Beans served over rice added protein to the diet when many families could not afford meat.

There are some important things you should know before cooking the beans. Pick through the dried beans, removing any with pinprick holes in them. These beans were bug infested; discard them. Beans will swell up to about double in size. A five-quart container is good for soaking beans. Place a plate on top of the beans when you start to soak them to make sure they stay under the water. Do not refrigerate because it will slow the tenderizing.

If you wake up and find the skins have completely slipped off the beans, it means they were too old to begin with. Throw them out and pick up two (14.5 ounce) cans kidney beans. Rinse and drain the canned beans well, and use them instead, to keep you on schedule; reduce the water to four cups and the cooking time to one hour. Or start with new fresh dried beans and have the dish the next day.

If you are very sensitive to beans, change the soaking water after the first and third hours to reduce the effects (you know what I mean).

Let the beans cook until tender before seasoning with salt; the skins will be more tender. Also, keep the heat low with the mixture at a slow, steady simmer (not boiling) so the jackets stay on the beans instead of becoming little rolled up pieces.

Add oil, or the rendered fat from sausage, to the cooking beans to help reduce foaming and boil-overs. Skim that funky foam off the top.

A unique, worry free way to cook fluffy long-grain rice is to combine two cups water with two cups washed rice and two teaspoons salt in a double boiler. Cook over boiling water for an hour. Serve the rice with a fork to fluff it while serving.

This recipe is from my new cookbook, “Screen Doors and Sweet Tea,” by Martha Hall Foose. Her book is about the Mississippi Delta and is a great book with stories and good recipes.

Monday Red Beans

and Rice

1 pound dried kidney beans

1 pound smoked sausage links, cut into 1-inch-thick rounds

1 bay leaf

1 large onion, chopped

1 green bell pepper, chopped

2 celery stalks, leaves and all, chopped

3 garlic cloves, minced

1 ham bone, with most of the meat removed and reserved, or 2 smoked ham hocks

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

2 cups cooked white rice

¼ cup chopped parsley

Soak the kidney beans in six cups of water overnight. Drain well.

Heat a large Dutch oven or stockpot over medium high heat.

Add the sausage and cook, stirring for 3-5 minutes or until the sausage in nicely browned. Remove the sausage and reserve to put back later.

Add the bay leaf, onion, bell pepper, and celery to the pot.

Cook for 3-5 minutes, stirring occasionally, until tender. Add the garlic and cook for one minute more.

Add the ham bone, drained beans, and enough water to cover by 2 inches. Bring just to a boil, then reduce to a low simmer. Simmer for two hours, or until the beans are very tender. Stir occasionally, making sure to scrape any beans from the bottom of the pot that may have stuck. Add more water if the mixture is too thick. For a creamy consistency, mash some of the beans against the side of the pot with the back of a spoon.

Add the browned sausage and any bits of ham, and simmer for 10 minutes more. Remove the bay leaf. Season with salt and pepper. Serve over rice, garnished with the parsley.

The tradition of eating red beans and rice for Monday in New Orleans is so ingrained in the food consciousness that this dish has become the emblem of Crescent City cooking, even inspiring native son Louis Armstrong to sign his correspondence “Red beans and ricely yours.”

This next recipe transforms red beans and rice into a cool and portable salad that is great at tailgate parties, Mardi Gras parades or picnics. Although you can substitute about three cups of canned beans that have been drained and rinsed, the resulting flavor and texture is so much better if you cook them from scratch.

Red Beans and

Rice Salad

1 cup dried red kidney beans

2 whole cloves

1 yellow onion

4 cloves garlic, unpeeled

2 bay leaves

3 cups chicken stock or water

½ teaspoon each sea salt and sugar

2 tablespoons cider vinegar

1 teaspoon Creole mustard or coarse-grain brown mustard and Tabasco, plus more for serving

1 teaspoon minced fresh thyme, plus sprigs for garnish

1/3 cup olive oil

Freshly ground pepper

2 large ripe tomatoes

1 each celery stalk, green bell pepper, and small red onion

¼ pound cooked ham (optional)

¼ cup minced fresh flat-leaf (Italian) parsley leaves

3 cups steamed long-grain white rice

Pick over beans and discard any misshapen beans or stones. Rinse the beans and drain. Place in a bowl, add plenty of cold water to cover, and let soak for several hours or overnight.

Drain the beans and place them in a saucepan. Stick the cloves into the yellow of the onion and add it to the saucepan along with the garlic, bay leaves, and stock.

Place over high heat, bring to a boil, reduce the heat to maintain a lively simmer, cover, and cook until the beans are just tender and not truly mushy, about an hour. Drain and reserve the beans and garlic cloves separately; discard the onion and bay leaves. The beans may be cooked and stored, tightly covered, in the refrigerator up to two days in advance.

Squeeze the cooked garlic cloves out of the skins, releasing the pulp into a large serving bowl and discard the skins. Mash the garlic with salt and sugar and then whisk in the vinegar until the salt and sugar have dissolved. Whisk in the mustard, Tabasco, minced thyme, and olive oil until blended. Add several grinds of pepper. Set aside for at least 30 minutes to allow the flavors to blend. Taste and adjust seasonings. Whisk again before continuing.

Cut the tomatoes in half crosswise. Holding each half cut side down over the sink, squeeze gently to force out the seeds. Use a fingertip, if necessary, to dislodge them. Finely chop the tomatoes. Thinly slice the celery stalk. Halve the bell pepper, remove the stem, seeds, and ribs, and chop finely. Finely chop the red onion. Finely chop the ham, if using.

Add the tomatoes, celery, bell pepper, red onion, parsley, ham (if using), drained beans, and rice to the serving bowl. Toss gently to combine. Set aside at room temperature for at least 30 minutes or up to two hours.

Before serving, taste and adjust the seasoning. Garnish with thyme sprigs and serve at room temperature. Pass a bottle of Tabasco at the table.

“Red Beans and ricely yours!” on this coming Lundi Gras, or Mardi Gras.