My first memory of red beans and rice is not a pleasant one. While we were living in Jackson, Mississippi, a family friend from New Orleans had us over for dinner one night when I was about three. She had made her famous rendition of the classic Crescent City dish for the adults in attendance. There was a big bottle of Tabasco on the table, and I pointed to it and asked my mama what it was. She’d never had it before herself, but instead of telling me, she decided to show me.
She knew it was hot sauce, so she carefully shook a single drop onto the end of her index finger. She didn’t know how hot that hot sauce was though when she stuck that same finger out for me to put in my mouth. Turns out, it was too spicy for a toddler’s sensitive taste buds, and I screamed like she’d just set me on fire. Everyone in the room turned to look, concern twisting their mouths and noses up under wide, worry-filled eyes. As my mom explained why I was screaming, they all turned their attention to her, staring in shock, disbelief, and incredulity. My mom was always quiet and shy when I was growing up (she’s blossomed as she’s aged), and I’m pretty sure she wanted to crawl under that dining table and die of shame.
But she didn’t. And I stopped crying, when, after a few minutes, the tingling burn blazing across my lips and tongue lost its sizzle and went out. There was no permanent damage to my little mouth. And no permanent damage between my mama and me. I knew even then she had not intended for the Tabasco to hurt me. She just didn’t know how hot it was.
Today, my taste buds have toughened up; I could probably drink Tabasco straight with just a little twitch at the first touch of heat. And the incident didn’t put me off red beans and rice either; it’s one of my favorite meals. I love my mama’s (made using the recipe from that same NOLA-native friend). But through the years, I’ve discovered that out there, in the wide world of recipes, there are versions that are better. They’re richer, deeper, spicier, saltier, porkier. (Yes, I am aware that’s not a real word.)
Last summer, a comforting bowl of RB&R at Felix’s in New Orleans lit a fire in me (and no, it wasn’t from too much Tabasco). Its happy marriage of humble beans, onion, garlic, and bay leaf wrapped my tongue in a tasty, warm hug, and I knew I didn’t want to have to make the trip to NOLA every time I wanted that experience again. Thus began my search for THE BEST RB&R recipe in existence. It became a quest, like a hunt for the Creole Ark of the Covenant. I’m happy to report that after eight attempts, I may have found it.
And the winner is: Chef Virginia Willis’s Red Beans & Rice. This beloved Southern chef and food writer has penned multiple articles and award-winning cookbooks. I found her RB&R recipe near the end of my search, and it was practically perfect. But, since I’m always goofing around with recipes (even those that don’t need to be goofed around with), I decided to tweak it a bit to make it more in line with my personal tastes. I like my RB&R thick, so I used less liquid. I like pork fat, so I added more of that. (And I omitted the smoked paprika because my jar of smoked paprika smelled funky when I went to add it in.) The result was delicious and still pretty darn close to Chef Virginia’s, so when you and your family fall in love with this dish, she’s the gal to thank!
Red Beans & Rice
(recipe courtesy of Chef Virginia Willis, with minor modifications)
• 1 to 2 tablespoons bacon grease or 1 tablespoon vegetable or canola oil
• 12 to 16 ounces Andouille or other smoked link sausage (I used Alabama-made Conecuh sausage), sliced into bite-sized pieces
• 1 ham hock
• 2 sweet onions, diced
• 2 celery stalks, diced
• 2 poblano or green bell peppers, chopped
• 8 cloves garlic, minced
• 1 pound red beans, soaked overnight and drained
• 6 1/2 cups chicken broth or water
• 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
• 1/4 teaspoon white pepper
• 3 bay leaves
• 3 green onions, chopped, plus a few more for garnish
• Salt and black pepper, to taste
Brown the sausage in the bacon fat or oil in a large stock pot or Dutch oven over medium-high heat, and then add sweet onions, celery, and peppers and cook until tender.
Add the garlic and cook for about 1 minute. Add the beans, bay leaves, ham hock, green onions, cayenne, white and black pepper, salt, and broth to the pot.
Bring it all to a boil and then simmer for 1 1/2 to 2 hours, uncovered.
Toward the end of cooking, remove the bay leaves and ham hock and use a wooden spoon or potato masher to smash some of the beans. This will thicken it some and make it creamy.
Simmer for a few more minutes.
Serve with cooked white rice, extra chopped green onions, and your favorite hot sauce.