Food Musings: Red Beans and Rice

Red beans and rice is one of those dishes I learned to cook while in New Orleans and it never fails to bring back memories of my time in the Crescent City. It's something I make quite often, maybe twice a month or so, but tend to make it on Mondays as is the tradition. Apparently, back in the day, women in the Big Easy served ham on Sunday and used the ham hock to make Monday's red beans which could simmer on the stove while they did their cleaning chores. One can find red beans and rice most days in touristy New Orleans restaurants, but good ones usually keep the tradition by serving it as a Monday lunch special.

I don't use a recipe for it, and whether it's because I don't have a certain ingredient, or I want to experiment a bit, my red beans come out different every time. First, I never use a ham hock. I've never liked ham all that much, and while I know I can buy just the ham bone, I never actually do that. Instead I start with a bit of oil, chopped onion and celery, although if I don't have fresh celery in the house, I've been known to use a few sprinkles of celery flake instead. While the onion/celery mix is softening, I add some spices - usually salt and black pepper, sometimes thyme, always a bay leaf or two. Then I decide if I feel like going vegetarian or not. If not, then it's time to add sausage, about a pound of it - andouille is my number one choice, but kielbasa, linguica, chorizo, and the like have worked well. If yes, then it's time to add the beans. I'm not organized enough to plan to make this dish ahead of time (which means soaking dried beans overnight and all that) so I rely on canned red beans, four 14.5-ouncers or 2 large cans, sometimes using a pretty mix of light or dark for aesthetic reasons only. I tend to use an immersion blender to puree one can's worth so the dish has a creamier texture. Once the beans are in, I add the heat - several dashes of Trappey's Louisiana Hot Sauce and plenty of Tony Chachere's Creole Seasoning. On these two things I remain a purist. I give it all a taste, adjust my seasonings accordingly and let it simmer for as long as it takes. The rice part? Usually a nice basmati I make in my handy rice cooker, but sometimes even I resort to Uncle Ben's "boil-in-the-bag." It doesn't matter to me - one bite and I may as well be walking along the Mississippi.

I doubt that these musings will help anyone make a decent pot of red beans. And while I'm sure there are New Orleanians out there who would balk at my laissez-faire attitude toward one of their best-known dishes, I would argue that laissez-faire is what NOLA does best. A little bit of this, a little bit of that, and a little bit of cooking time - that's the best recipe for any dish in my opinion.


Chicken, Sweet Onion and Potato Paprika

It's been a year since Chris and I went on our trip to Prague and Budapest, and in that year, we have really come to love Hungarian paprika, so much that the usual McCormick's or Spice Islands brands just don't cut it any longer. We add Hungarian paprika to many of our dishes, especially fall and winter ones, to give them a nice, deep, smoky spiciness. I was thinking about paprika when I decided to create a new chicken dish this past weekend. We tend to do the same chicken dishes again and again, and I wanted something different, something with a little zing. It was an experiment, and one that turned out well. The potatoes were brown and crispy, the onions were soft and caramelized, and the chicken was juicy, so I knew it cooked for the right amount of time. As far as the spice blend goes, the heat was bold with that hint of smokiness only paprika can offer. Since we cooked it all in one baking dish, everything had a vibrant orange-brown color. Chris and I both deemed it worthy of working into our chicken-dish repertoire, especially since it was both delicious and easy.


2 split chicken breasts, with skin and bone
1 large sweet onion, chopped roughly
3-4 small potatoes, cut into bite-sized pieces
1/4 cup olive oil
1 1/2 tablespoons Hungarian hot paprika
1 1/2 tablespoons Hungarian sweet paprika
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon cayenne pepper

Preheat the oven to 550 degrees. Combine the olive oil and spices in a large Ziploc bag then add the onion, potatoes and chicken. Toss everything in the bag so it is coated well with the spice blend. In a baking dish, lay the potatoes and onions down in one layer, then rest the chicken, skin side up, on top of them. Bake for 40 minutes.


Reminder: Restaurant Report Cards

Back in October, I did a short post announcing that my friend and co-teacher Joanne and I would be starting up a blog together called Restaurant Report Cards. Both of us love to cook, eat and drink, and like most women we know, we also love having girls' night out. On these nights (or afternoons on occasion...), we tend to peruse the menu online beforehand, order different dishes (the more to taste!), share samples, linger over the wine, and talk, not only about work or the men in our lives or whatever else is going on, but about the food. And since we were each already writing our own blogs, we decided to start one up reviewing the restaurants we visit. Now that we have a dozen or so reviews posted, we're officially "debuting" to our family, friends, neighbors, coworkers, and of course, our readers. We've gotten business cards and sent postcard notices and now we're just putting it out into the universe that maybe something will come of the venture we've come to call "RRC." If you love to read about food, or are wondering about restaurants in the Connecticut/Massachusetts area, we hope you'll check it out.


School Lunch

As many of you know, Chris and I are both high school teachers. I work in a district-run public school and he works in a state-run tech school which has a culinary program. When he sent me a copy of their lunch menu for today, I knew I had a great blog topic. Let's compare the lunch that was available for the adults in each building today.

My school:

Soup of the Day: Vegetable, $1.50.

Choice One: Deli bar - choice of ham or turkey "roll" with sliced American or mozzarella cheese on a white hard roll or wrap, served with a 2-oz. cup of shredded lettuce and one slice of anemic-looking tomato, a 4-oz. cup of vegetable soup (made with yesterday's leftovers), and a portion of canned pineapple chunks for $3.50.

Choice Two: Hot lunch - Chicken fajita wrap (an ice-cream scoop of shredded chicken with taco seasoning on a cold white tortilla) served with salsa and shredded cheese, that 2-oz. shredded lettuce and tomato cup (see above), seasoned corn (no matter what it is, the vegetable of the day is always "seasoned" which means it has plenty of salt, and maybe some pepper), and a fruit cocktail cup for $3.50.

Hey, at least the main "entree" isn't the once-a-month fan favorite (yes, I'm being sarcastic...)Chicken "Fryz" (picture something the size of a McDonald's French fry only browner and soggier with a dental-floss-size strip of chicken in the center, and yes, they spell it that way).

His school:

Soup of the Day: Crab Bisque, $2.00.

Choice One: Chicken Quesadilla: "Toasted tortilla shell filled with cheese, diced tomatoes, onions, jalapeno peppers and roasted shredded chicken accompanied by salsa and sour cream." $6.00

Choice Two: Manicotti and Meatballs: "Pasta stuffed with ricotta cheese and mozzarella cheese with marinara sauce and meatballs, served with a side salad and garlic bread." $6.50

Choice Three: Grilled Flank Steak: "Grilled marinated flank steak served with a loaded baked potato and vegetable." $6.50

Heart Smart Choice: Baked Cod Fish: Cod fish baked in a lemon beurre blanc with a brown rice pilaf and vegetable." $6.50

It's just not fair.