Red Beans and Rice

I am a New Orleanian trapped in a Chicagoan’s body.

I just realized this as I sit here streaming traditional New Orleans jazz on WWOZ-FM while a pot of Red Beans and Rice slow cooks in the kitchen, filling the house with the spicy, smoky aroma of a lazy Monday afternoon in the Crescent City.

Red Beans and Rice

Red Beans and Rice

You see, red beans and rice is traditionally made on Mondays using the leftovers from Sunday’s dinners. I have an old Times-Picayune cookbook that says this tradition that goes back to the city’s colonial days, when ham was what was for dinner on Sunday, and the scraps and leftovers were boiled with a pot of beans all day Monday, while the washing was done.

It is a dish still closely identified with New Orleans. When you visit the city, you will see it on a lot of restaurant menus, and a big pot of it is cooked whenever people gather together to watch a Saints game, for Mardi Gras or second line celebrations, or any other festive occasion, from what I’m told.

Red beans and rice was Louis Armstrong’s favorite dish. How cool is that? Also, how cool is it that the city’s airport is named for Louis Armstrong?!  What a place! (Can you imagine naming O’Hare after Chicago musicians? Buddy Guy International Airport? Styx Field? Wait, I actually kind of like both of those.)

You can put a lot of things in red beans and rice, besides the titular ingredients. Traditionally, there’s a mix of vegetables and ham or sausage in a tomato-based sauce, but there are really no limits. If you serve it with jalapeno cornbread, please call me because I will be there.

I like to mix all the ingredients the night before in the crock pot, then refrigerate it until the next morning. Before going to work, I pop it into the slow-cooker, set the timer for 8 hours on low and when I get home the house is filled with magic. Must drive the dogs nuts.

If you’re home, you can also cook it on the stovetop over a low flame for several hours. Just give it a stir once in a while when you walk past it.

If you buy one of those boxes of Zatarain’s red beans and rice, your heart is in the right place, but you’re not doing it right.

Red Beans and Rice

16 oz package Polska Kielbasa (or Turkey Kielbasa), sliced into medallions

1 medium white onion, diced

1/2 green pepper, diced

3-4 carrots, peeled and diced

2 celery stalks, diced

2-3 jalapenos, seeds and ribs removed, diced

15 oz can whole peeled tomtoes, hand crushed

12 oz can diced tomatos and chiles

2 cans red beans, drained and rinsed

1 bay leaf

1 cup Spicy V-8

2 cups cooked rice

Combine all ingredients, except the rice, in crock pot. Stir together and cook on low for 8-10 hours, stirring occasionally.

To plate, press rice into a ramekin and invert in the center of a soup bowl. Ladle the red beans mixture around the rice, and garnish with parsley or cilantro sprigs.

Serve with jalapeno cornbread or any kind of fresh made bread, turn on a little Professor Longhair and you officially are an honorary New Orleanian.

Do you know what it means to miss New Orleans? Share your Crescent City favorites in the comments section below. And thanks for looking at my blog!

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Smoker of Love

Last Father’s Day, my family gave me a backyard smoker. This compact, R2D2-shaped slow cooker has changed my life. For example, I now take Guy Fieri seriously. Folks do some serious food smoking on that show!

My Smoker of Love

My Smoker of Love

A smoker is similar to a charcoal grill in that charcoal is burned, but that’s where the similarities end. Smokers cook at a much, much lower temperature than a charcoal or gas grill and use a moist cooking method and indirect heat. This is ideal for breaking down the connective tissues in tougher, less expensive cuts of meat, such as ribs, pork shoulders, and beef briskets.

When you add soaked wood chips to the charcoal, the result is a smoky, succulent, fall-off-the-bone goodness  like you’ve never experienced. In other words, barbeque heaven.

The way it works is this: Charcoal and soaked wood chips are burned in the bottom pan of this cyclindrical-shaped cooker. Directly above is a pan containing liquid, such as beer, vinegar, water or a combination. A grill sits on top of this pan, with another grill about  eight inches above that one.

The charcoal and wood heat the liquid, which converts to a steam, enveloping the meat in a smoky mist that holds at 212F, or the boiling point of water.

The downside is that a smoker is a lot needier than a charcoal or gas grill. The charcoal and the wood have to be replenished every hour or so and you need to make sure the liquid pan always has liquid in it, otherwise the temperature in the smoker will skyrocket and
the meat will cook too fast. Slow, sweaty and steady, that’s my motto.

While I can fire up my grill anytime I want, using the smoker takes some planning because I need to make sure I’m going to be around the house most of the day. But the results are well worth it. Commercial smokers I’ve used in restaurants require a far less maintenance (usually you fire up the smoker the night before, then take your finished product out in the morning), but let’s just focus on the backyard variety for our purposes.

Because of the time commitment, I usually smoke larger amounts of meat than I would if I were just grilling. I’ll do a few chickens at once, for example, or perhaps a 3-5 pound pork shoulder. In other words, more than we would eat for just one meal. Once the meats are fully cooked, whatever we don’t eat right away I will cool, then pull apart or off the bone, removing any sinew and most fat. Then I’ll put the meat into portion-sized baggies and freeze for later use.

Smoking a Flank Steak

Smoking a Flank Steak

The economic benefit of all this is that you can get more cooked, smoky-flavored meat for a lot less money. Smoked meats can be stored like any other meat and hold their smoky flavor well in the freezer for at least a month, if properly stored.

Heat up some smoked pulled pork or chicken in a sauce pan with a little barbeque sauce and water, pile it on a toasted Kaiser roll and you’ve got a down-home BBQ experience like no other. Serve it with some coleslaw and some beer and there’s nothing better on earth. Or smoke a couple of slabs of baby back ribs all day, then give them a quick finish on  the gas grill smothered in BBQ sauce and you’ll have a flavor explosion your family and friends will be talking about for years.

A word about dry rubs.

Because this is an indirect heat/moist cooking method, you wouldn’t want to dab traditional barbeque sauce on your meats when they go into the smoker because the steam will cause the sauce to roll right off. Instead, prior to cooking coat your meat in a dry rub,
which is a combination of dried herbs and spices that will adhere and add flavor throughout the cooking process. Or try marinating your meat in the dry rub up to a day before cooking so the flavors really get a chance to sink in, as you would a traditional liquid marinade.

Here’s a recipe for a boilerplate sweet and spicy dry rub to use on just about any
smoked meat. I mix a big batch and store it in an airtight container with my spices until I’m ready to use it.

Dry Rub

¼ cup firmly packed brown sugar

¼  cup sweet paprika

3 TBS black pepper

3 TBS sea salt (or table salt)

2 tsp garlic powder

2 tsp onion powder

2 tsp celery seeds

1 tsp cayenne pepper

Combine all the ingredients together and mix well. You’ll probably need to use your hands to break up the lumps of brown sugar. This mix keeps for at least six months in an airtight container away from direct light or heat.

You can add yet another taste dimension to your smoked meat by basting it with a “mop sauce” during the last hour or so of cooking. Mop sauces are vinegar-based, usually spicy mixtures typically associated with North Carolina-style BBQ cooking. Here’s a basic mop sauce recipe:

Basic BBQ Mop Sauce

2 cups distilled white vinegar

1 TBS sea salt (or table salt)

1 tsp black pepper

1 tsp dried red pepper flake

1 small onion, sliced thin

1 jalapeno pepper (ribs and seeds included), sliced thin

Whisk salt and pepper into vinegar until salt dissolves. Add onion, jalapeno and red pepper flake and stir well. Use a pastry brush or traditional barbeque mop to outside surface of smoked meats during last hour of cooking.

I frequently use smoked pork or chicken as pizza toppings or for mixing into salads. Here’s an easy and delicious smoked chicken salad recipe that will add a new dimension to any lunchtime sandwich.

Smoked Chicken Salad

8 oz Pulled Smoked Chicken

1 TBS mayo

1 tsp Dijon mustard

½ tsp sugar

Dash Worchestershire Sauce

Dash Tabasco Sauce

½ cup red or green grapes, sliced in half

1 TBS walnuts, chopped

Salt and pepper to taste

Whisk together mayo, mustard, sugar, Worchestershire and Tabasco. Toss chicken in mixture, then fold in grapes and nuts. Season with S&P to taste. Serve in a Bibb lettuce leaf or on a roll. Garnish with a few dill sprigs, a sprinkle of parprika, or both.