Lightening up, speeding up a New Orleans classic

by Terry B on September 5, 2007

A lightened version of a New Orleans classic, Red Beans & Rice. Recipe below.

Last week I talked about cold soup. This week I do a 180, with hearty, spicy red beans and rice. A couple of weeks ago, we had a cold, gray spell in Chicago that gave me a hankering for some. I started with two recipes—one way too simple, the other a little too busy sounding—and created my own. But you don’t have to wait for cold weather to make it—anyone from Louisiana will tell you that any day is a good day for red beans and rice.

A traditional dish throughout southern Louisiana—and particularly linked to New Orleans—red beans and rice was actually born out of two traditions. Many families couldn’t afford to buy meat for their meals every day, but a ham dinner was a Sunday tradition. And that meant there would be a ham bone left over for Monday.

Mondays were also the traditional day for doing laundry—this was back before automatic washing machines and two-income families. So as load after load of wash was done, either by hand or in old-fashioned wringer washers [my grandmother actually still used one of the later models when I was a kid and hung her wash out to dry in the backyard], it was easy to have a big pot of beans with that ham bone simmering on the stove for hours, with just an occasional stir as you passed through the kitchen. And that made red beans and rice the perfect traditional Monday night dinner all across southern Louisiana.

Besides being amazingly flavorful with all those Cajun or Creole seasonings, this dish was practical. Beans served with rice was a great source of protein when people couldn’t afford to eat a lot of meat. And a big pot of beans could feed a big family cheaply. It was reasonably low in fat too, depending on how much actual meat had survived the Sunday dinner.

The way this dish has evolved, though, it’s anything but low in fat. Some recipes still call for a ham bone—or more often, ham hocks [which describes as “the lower portion of a hog’s hind leg, made up of meat, fat, bone, gristle and connective tissue,” usually cured or smoked or both]. But now it also almost invariably includes some kind of smoked sausage—classically, andouille or else kielbasa or some other smoked sausage. Read “fat bomb.”

I’ve lightened up this New Orleans classic considerably, without sacrificing flavor or stick-to-your-ribs heartiness. First, I use a lighter sausage with less fat. It’s still not exactly Weight Watchers, though—if you check the nutrition chart, you’ll see even the light versions contain an impressive amount of fat. And for that reason, I use half the amount of sausage a similar recipe calls for and substitute chicken breast or turkey cutlets.

I’ve sped it up too, with the help of canned beans. It still takes a little over an hour to pull together, but most of that time is just letting it simmer to blend all the flavors together. In other words, maybe time to cycle through one load of laundry if you’re feeling in a traditional mood.

Red Beans and Rice
Serves 4 [or more]

2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 pound light fully-cooked smoked sausage [such as Hillshire Farm Turkey or Lite Polska Kielbasa or Smoked Sausage], sliced into 1/2-inch rounds
1/2 pound chicken breast or turkey cutlets, cut into bite-sized chunks
1 onion, chopped
4 garlic cloves, chopped
1 14-1/2 ounce can diced tomatoes
3 14-1/2 to 16-ounce cans red beans
1 cup dry red wine
3 bay leaves
1-1/2 teaspoon Creole or Cajun seasoning [see Kitchen Notes]
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper [or to taste]

3 cups cooked rice

Heat a heavy, large Dutch oven over medium heat. Add oil, sausage, chicken and onion and sauté until onion is brown, about 15 minutes. Add garlic and sauté until fragrant, about 45 seconds.

Mix in tomatoes and 1 can of beans with their juices. Drain and rinse the other 2 cans of beans and add them. Add wine and enough water to barely cover. Stir in Creole seasoning and cayenne pepper and add bay leaves. Bring to boil, then reduce heat to medium-low; cover and simmer until flavors are blended and mixture is very thick, stirring occasionally, about 45 minutes. You may need to add a little water if it cooks down too much. Do so sparingly—you want this to be thick and stewlike, not soupy.

DO NOT ADD SALT. The sausage brings plenty of salt to the party, as do the seasonings, the juices from one can of beans and the canned tomatoes [unless you use the no-salt-added varieties].

Discard bay leaves. Divide beans mixture among large shallow soup bowls. Place a scoop of rice in the middle of each bowl and serve.

Kitchen Notes

Creole or Cajun Seasoning. If you’ve spent any time with New Orleans cookbooks, you know that prepared seasonings rule. Dried herbs, onion powder, garlic powder… Creole seasoning includes a little bit of all of these—and plenty of salt. You can generally find pre-made Creole seasonings with the spices in the supermarket. If you want to make your own, you’ll find a recipe over at The Paupered Chef.

More beans, please! Beans see a lot of action at Blue Kitchen [insert your own joke here, then get over it]. Here are some other dishes you might like to try. First, a delicious Brazilian take on rice and beans that I cooked up with Patricia over at Technicolor Kitchen. Next, we’re big fans of chili at Blue Kitchen, so here’s chili two ways—my chili and Marion’s chili. And finally, a quick, flavorful side dish with cannellini or white beans, Tuscan Beans.

Also this week in Blue Kitchen

Art and life-changing moments at WTF? Random food for thought.

The old school pleasures of vinyl at What’s on the kitchen boombox?


{ 24 comments… read them below or add one }

Rosa September 5, 2007 at 8:37 am

It looks delicious and very comforting! I’m keeping that great recipe…

Lydia September 5, 2007 at 10:40 am

Question: are you using a 14-ounce or 28-ounce can of chopped tomatoes? This looks delicious, especially made without the ham hock for those of us who don’t eat pork.

Terry B September 5, 2007 at 12:31 pm

Thanks, Rosa! It really is comfort food with a southern accent.

Lydia—Leave it to the keeper of The Perfect Pantry to catch this omission. It’s the 14-ounce [or so] can. Thanks! I’ll fix the recipe.

Kalyn September 5, 2007 at 12:38 pm

Terry, this dish is something I truly learned to appreciate through visiting New Orleans. Your version sounds wonderful. I love Tony Chachere’s Creole Seasoning if you haven’t tried it. I learned about it from a friend from Louisiana.

BTW, I hope I don’t lose all my foodie credibility for saying this, but the red beans and rice at Popeye’s Chicken are quite unique and delicious. They cook the beans until they’re the consistency of runny re-fried beans and serve it in a bowl with a spoonful of rice in the center. Whenever I’m in the South I have to have some of that.

Deborah September 5, 2007 at 3:11 pm

This looks like a great comfort dish!

Katiez September 5, 2007 at 3:16 pm

I love beans and ham and anything! The picture made my mouth water before I even got to the recipe! Interesting putting in the chicken/turkey, lightens it up and adds meat.
Those old wringer washers look amazingly like pasta machines….

Patricia Scarpin September 5, 2007 at 3:20 pm

This would be a huge hit around here, Terry – so when you visit Brazil and come to my place to cook for us, this could be in the menu, ok? :)

Jennifer Hess September 5, 2007 at 4:03 pm

I’m a big fan of rice and beans in any form, but I absolutely adore red beans & rice. That photo is literally making my mouth water!

Christine September 5, 2007 at 5:22 pm

It’s almost lunch time and when I saw this, my stomach started growling. This looks so hearty and satisfying and it will defnitely be on the menu this week!

Terry B September 6, 2007 at 1:41 am

Kalyn—One of my guilty pleasures used to be deep fried okra from Church’s Chicken.

Deborah—I find that much of New Orleans cuisine is exactly that. Only fitting because the people are so warm and welcoming.

Katiez—An even older version of the wringer was merely the wringer with benches on either side to hold washtubs. The garments would move through the wringer from the sudsy tub to a rinse tub on the other side—and often back again to another rinse, then back one more time into the waiting laundry basket for hanging. Labor intensive, perhaps, but ingenious too. As a resourceful, underfunded art teacher, I used just such a wringer [picked up at a flea market] as a press for printing etchings in a printmaking class I taught one summer.

Patricia—Or I could put it on the menu when you and Joao come to Chicago!

Jennifer and Christine—Turnabout is fair play. You’ve both made me plenty hungry with your posts!

ann September 6, 2007 at 1:50 am

Hi TerryB! Funny, Monday always was and still is laundry day in my family. No day was ever beans and rice day until I met Isaac and now if he had his way just about every day would be beans and rice day! I’ll have to keep this one under wraps for at least a month and a half or so until the weather cools down a bit. As always a great recipe and tons of fun info.

Terry B September 6, 2007 at 2:02 am

Thanks, Ann! I think you’ll win big points with this one when you get around to it.

Deb September 6, 2007 at 1:42 pm

I use a smoked turkey leg when making red beans and rice and it is wonderful.

Terry B September 6, 2007 at 2:22 pm

Deb—Smoked turkey sounds like an excellent way to reduce the fat even more. But I have to admit, I would miss the sausage—more of a visual and textural thing than taste, but those are critical elements of food to me.

Nick September 6, 2007 at 10:46 pm

The creole seasoning recipe over at our site is just a combination of a bunch of other prepared seasonings. I think you’re safe with the mix – as long as it tastes good.

Love the beans and rice! One of my favorite meals.

Chef Chip September 7, 2007 at 3:27 am

OK, Terry! Now you’re in MY hometown! I grew up in the “other” Cajun country, Lafayette area–we call that whole region “Acadiana”.

Your recipe looks very authentic–you even have the bay leaves! An herb that I think is seriously overlooked in the home kitchen.

Are the tomatoes your own addition? I’ve never known a red beans recipe to call for that.

I recently had my mom send over the authentic red beans used in Louisiana. As far as I know, you can’t get them anywhere else. They’re Camellia Brand and they yield a creaminess that you’ll never get from any other red bean.

Another thing we always use is Savoie’s Brand andouille sausage. Unless a Cajun makes his own andouille, this is the brand we always use. I know here in Atlanta, you can now get the stuff in Publix grocery stores.

Deb above said she uses a smoked turkey leg. Man! What a GREAT idea! Never thought of that but that would be the best way to cut out the fat and still keep the flavors.

Kalyn, I’m with you. Love dem Popeye’s beans!

Sorry to take over your blog, Terry. But I LOVE red beans and rice. I got really excited to see your post!

Terry B September 7, 2007 at 4:33 am

Nick—As I said, New Orleans cooks love their prepared seasonings. At first it kind of put me off their recipes, but now I just accept it because the food tastes so incredible.

Chef Chip—I have a standing invitation to look up zydeco master Fernest Arceneaux if I’m ever in Lafayette. I love that whole area. I’ve been to New Orleans often, but have also driven stretches of I-10 and U.S. 90. Beautiful country. Bay leaves see lots of action in our kitchen—I love the fragrance they give off when they first hit a sauce. And I’ve actually come across a couple of recipes for red beans and rice calling for tomatoes.

No problem with “taking over” Blue Kitchen—I love your input and enthusiasm. Thanks!

Terry B September 7, 2007 at 7:09 pm

Chef Chip got me curious. So I found the official website for Camellia Brand. And since they don’t sell online, I found a place that does: Cajun Grocer. Turns out they also carry Savoie’s Brand Andouille sausage.

Susan from Food Blogga September 7, 2007 at 10:48 pm

I love this story about the genesis of rice and beans. Isn’t is amazing how so many dishes resulted from necessity and some ingenuity? So many of my grandmother’s best dishes were “peasant” dishes created from leftovers and added to other ingredients to stretch them out for a large, hungry family. Great post, Terry!

Chef Chip September 8, 2007 at 12:16 am

Terry: There ya go! I highly recommend using Camellia and Savoie’s. I’d love to hear how you enjoy the differences!

Susan from Food Blogga: Yes, and there sure are a lot of world cuisines that have peasant dishes. Cajun is certainly one of them. My mom has one that we call “chaud-lo-lo.” The name is pretty non sequitur except that it is served hot. But it came from a time of poverty, near the end of the month before her school teacher paycheck arrived. All she had was American cheese singles, some frozen ground beef in the freezer and half a loaf of stale Evangeline Maid bread. She cooked up the ground beef, thickened with flour, seasoned with whatever she had. Then steamed the stale bread over the meat with the cheese on top. It was kind of like improvised Sloppy Joe’s. And she’s been serving it to us ever since!

Helmut September 8, 2007 at 8:30 am

The photo of your classic dish sure looked tasty. A great and well produced web log!

Sophie September 8, 2007 at 11:18 am

This sounds just the job for autumn! I like the idea of diluting the sausage with a bit of chicken (though I’m tempted to try it with some extra veggies instead)

Diane September 11, 2007 at 4:32 pm

Its cold and rainy in Boston today. The Red Sox game will probably be rained out. A good night to try this great sounding recipe. A veggie only version could be nicely adapted, separated and put aside to serve the vegetarian at the table. Great blog…I’ll be back on Wednesday to see what’s new.

Andrea September 12, 2007 at 7:04 pm

Terry — My friend from New Orleans pops her (uncanned) red beans and seasonings in a crockpot and sets it on high for the day. You come home and your red beans are ready and waiting!

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