Memories of my maternal great-grandmother are few, as she left us when I was very young. But the one fuzzy vision I do have is her baking in her quaint kitchen in New Orleans – chocolate chip cookies, of all things. I can still see her experienced hands gently caressing the freshly baked cookies off the sheet pan. And since my mother is not known for her culinary inclinations, we have determined that I get my zeal for food from Hazel Gomila, or Maw Maw.
So whenever I slip into the kitchen to cook up something Cajun, Creole or anywhere in between, I think of her. And for an unknown reason I want to be cooking and baking N’Awlins favorites just like she did. Go ahead, call me a sap. I can take it. I can also eat large amounts of her red beans and rice in one sitting.
Across the Crescent City, and even within our extended family, views on the right way to make red beans differ. Roux or no roux? Tomato paste or not? Sauté the vegetables separate from the beans or in the same pot? In Maw Maw’s version (via my mother’s memory), the beans are simmered in a large pot before the rest of the ingredients are added, and an impromptu roux is made with the trinity of Creole cooking – onions, celery and green pepper. Starting the beans first saves time – Maw Maw was a smart lady with a lot of children.
Fun History: In the days before electric dryers, the housewives of New Orleans cooked red beans on Monday, also known as “wash day”. The beans were a dinner that could be left alone on the stove while the ladies labored outside washing and hanging laundry. In keeping the tradition alive, many restaurants in the city still serve up red bean specials on Mondays, but thank goodness for laundry appliances. And juicy smoked sausage covered in red bean gravy.
Regardless of which day you choose to enjoy a pot, the key to the best ever red beans and rice is Camellia beans (no this is not an advertisement). I’ve cooked them with and without, and there’s no doubt in my mind Camellia brand red kidney beans equal a superior mouthful. And that is something I believe everyone in and from New Orleans agrees on. Maw Maw and myself, included. Trust me, they’re the red beans memories are made of.
- 1 pound red kidney beans (Camellia)
- Water or chicken stock
- 1 each ham hock (or a couple pinches of ham seasoning)
- 2 tsp bacon fat
- 14 oz smoked sausage, cut into ¼-inch slices
- 1 each Spanish onion, minced
- 2 stalks celery, small dice
- 1 small green pepper, small dice
- 2 garlic cloves, minced
- 1 Tbs all-purpose flour
- 1 bay leaf
- Pinch cayenne pepper
- Salt & black pepper to taste
- 2 Tbs fresh thyme leaves (dried is fine, too)
- 1 pound long grain white rice, cooked according to package directions
- In a large stockpot, cover the beans with water by half an inch. Add the ham hock, and bring to a simmer.
- In a large sauté pan, heat the bacon fat and sauté the sausage until browned. Transfer sausage to pot with beans. In the same pan, sauté the trinity for two minutes over medium heat. Add garlic and cook until fragrant.
- Sprinkle the flour over the vegetables, and cook for two more minutes. Add to pot with beans. Add bay leaf and season generously with salt. Simmer on low until beans are tender.
- Bring a large stock pot of water to boil and add rice. Drain when tender and reserve.
- When beans are soft, smash about a quarter of them against the side of the pan with a wooden spoon (this makes the gravy). Add thyme, cayenne, and salt and pepper to taste. Serve with a helping of rice atop the center of the beans.