NO MATTER HOW YOU MAKE IT, Red Beans and Rice will always be a New Orleans legacy. Although today is Mardi Gras, I made this dish yesterday, Monday, which is the traditional day it is served in both homes and restaurants. According to legend, ham was typically served for Sunday dinner. Monday, laundry day, the leftovers were used to flavor a pot of beans which could simmer all day while the clothes were being scrubbed.
(I am so thankful for my washer and dryer).
There is no set recipe for this dish, but a few things are traditional. Some kind of smoky meat is used to flavor the beans, be it ham, tasso, bacon, fatback, ham hock, sausage. Red beans, dark red kidney beans, and light red kidney beans are all fine here. I used the latter. The trinity is always used--onion, celery, bell pepper, along with typical creole flavorings of thyme, bay leaves, and cayenne pepper.
Allow plenty of time to cook the beans, most of which is hands off time. In the end, you want the vegetables to have melted into a creamy sauce.
New Orleans Red Beans and Rice
1 pound dried red beans, inspected and soaked overnight
2 quarts water
1 meaty ham bone or a thick slice of ham cut into cubes
1 bunch scallions, including green tops
1 green pepper
2 stalks celery
3 medium onions
1/2 tsp. dried thyme
4 bay leaves
Cayenne pepper to taste
Salt to taste
Hot white rice to serve
Rinse beans and put into a big, heavy pot. Add water and ham. Set uncovered on a burner at medium heat. While the beans are warming, chop and add scallions, green pepper, celery and onions. Then add thyme and bay leaves.
When the mixture boils, reduce heat and cover. Stir every 20 - 30 minutes for three hours. Then, with a wooden spoon, mash about one-fourth of the beans against the side of the pot. If they don't mash easily, try again after half an hour.
Forty minutes after mashing the beans, taste and season with cayenne pepper, but don't use too much; this is supposed to be delicious but subtly flavored. Continue to cook while preparing white rice.
Ladle beans and sauce over the rice and serve. It's hard to believe, but all the vegetables cook away to nothing. The mashed beans thicken the sauce to a creamy consistency.
Even more flavorful rewarmed after a night in the refrigerator.
PS. New Orleans is a city near and dear to my heart. And yes, I have been there during a Mardi Gras season.