Anatomy of a Classic: Red Beans & Rice

John Autry
by Francine Maroukian - Dec 09/Jan 2010

Comfort food for the Creole soul

A Monday tradition in New Orleans, red beans and rice has humble roots: a pot of beans seasoned with Sunday’s ham bone, left to simmer while the household laundry got done. Like the best peasant cooking, it extracts the most from its simple ingredients, steeping the flavor from the ham bone and firing up the spices to create a rich stew that reveals the city’s distinctive European and Afro-Caribbean cultural ancestry.

Chef Lee Richardson knows all sides of his hometown’s cooking style. He worked his way through New Orleans’ finest kitchens before relocating to Little Rock, Arkansas, where he now serves as executive chef at Ashley’s at the Capital Hotel. But while you can take the chef out of New Orleans, you can’t take New Orleans out of the chef. “Even though I grew up in New Orleans when there was a changing of the guard—when cooking was shifting from inside the home to out—my grandmother was still in the kitchen to pass the torch, and I continue to cherish the experience of making those classic dishes today,” he says.

Because they cook up creamier, it takes Louisiana red beans to make this dish properly (Richardson recommends Camellia brand beans, a standard grocery item in much of the South). It also takes the Creole Trinity (onions, celery, and green pepper). When a bowl of red beans and rice is served with a good piece of grilled andouille, some sliced scallions, and a toasted piece of Leidenheimer’s New Orleans French bread, it is a fortification for mind, body, and soul. And once you put that pot on the stove, all it requires is occasional deep stirring to release the concentrated flavors from the “fond”—the browned bits of food stuck to the bottom. Just don’t use a metal spoon, which can give off tiny metal particles when scraped against the pot. As Richardson likes to say, “If you ain’t cooking with a wooden spoon, you ain’t cooking.”