There are lots and lots of things to love about New Orleans: the incredible music that wafts through the evening air from just about every bar; the to-go cup; the world-class food of every ilk. The cuisine of NOLA has always been great. Even in the staid versions of shrimp etouffee and jumbalaya there is charm and history. The influences from France, the Caribbean, Africa, and Spain melt together as seamlessly as the equally complexly influenced music.
As a music and food lover there is only one place where I’d like to spend my birthday this coming weekend—New Orleans. I’ll be eating all over town, but the one dish that I plan on eating first, and last, is red beans and rice. It is served as free bar food at the divey-est of establishments as a cheap and efficient way to soak up the copious amounts of booze consumed by music lovers like me.
Red beans and rice takes its influence directly from African roots, but combining rice and beans is not unique to New Orleans; it can be found anywhere slaves were traded: Brazil, Macao, the Caribbean, and of course, Africa itself. Beans are inexpensive, and when combined with rice, create a complex protein that can sustain a labor-intensive life. Throw a couple of pork scraps in there and you’ve got something real, real special.
Red Beans and Rice
Serves 6 to 8
Soak beans in water to cover by 3 inches overnight. Drain beans.
Heat fat in a large heavy pot over medium high heat until hot, then saute onion, pepper, celery stalks, and garlic with 1/2 teaspoon each salt and pepper until browned, about 12 minutes. Add beans, ham hock, and water to cover by 2 inches and bring to a boil. Boil beans, partially covered, until beans are very tender, at least 2 hours. Stir in 1 teaspoon salt and remaining 1/2 teaspoon pepper. Do not drain beans.
Cook rice in 3 cups water and remaining 1/2 teaspoon salt over low heat until tender, about 20 minutes. Fluff rice with a fork and let stand, covered, 5 minutes.
Heat oil in a large heavy skillet until hot, then sear sausage, turning once, until browned, about 6 minutes.
Serve beans with some cooking liquid over rice and topped with sausage and reserved celery leaves.