Especially with a surprising secret ingredient, this classic Creole dish ticks all the boxes: inexpensive, adaptable for vegetarians and ideal for leftovers.
I come today singing the praises of beans, those tiny, protein-packed miracles. Legumes of all varieties have my undying love. I’m enchanted by tiny white cannellini beans in a hearty soup or pureed into garlicky dip. I can’t get enough of rich New England baked beans, redolent with the flavors of molasses and maple syrup. I make a steaming pot of black-eyed peas for luck on New Year’s Day and black beans with yellow rice when I’m missing my days in Miami. And nothing warms me from the inside out quite like a velvety bowl of split pea soup on a snowy winter day.
The latest addition to my bean scene was born, like so many unique culinary discoveries, in the magical city of New Orleans. My first trip to NOLA led to an epiphany about Red Beans and Rice, which found its way into my heart and my regular kitchen rotation.
This delicious dish ticks all my culinary boxes. It’s easy to prepare, inexpensive and easily adaptable for vegetarians. It can be made days in advance and for smaller households, one preparation can yield several meals. It’s perfect for potlucks and parties, and like most great leftovers, this dish tastes even better the next day.
I don’t know how authentic my recipe is. I’ve adapted it from a number of different sources, but there is one recent addition to the ingredient list that is transformative. All credit for this one goes to Katie Macdonald who writes for Food52. Katie calls her mother’s Red Beans and Rice mystery ingredient “a secret that everybody knows.”
Katie’s mom adds one cup of pickle juice to her red beans. “It’s not the same if you don’t use it. It makes the entire dish,” she says. I’m going to agree with her. The classic Creole recipe is next-level luscious when pickle juice is added. It balances the smoke and salt from the ham hock and diced ham. I use the brine from Mt. Olive Bread & Butter Chips, my go-to, straight-out-of-the-jar snack, which is always sitting front and center in my fridge. Now I save the juice, every drop destined for the bean pot.
My Grammy used to tell me “there’s a lid for every pot” when I bemoaned my single status. And although I’ve yet to meet my Prince Charming—or even Prince Not So Bad—I do delight in finding perfect food pairings. Witness the magic that happens when you serve a warm slice of cornbread with Red Beans and Rice. It’s a heavenly match.
I may get grief from purists for my cornbread “recipe,” considering the foundation is old school Jiffy Cornbread mix, but some of the best Southern cooks and chefs I know swear by this time-saving wonder. It’s been around since 1930 and is still going strong. I doctor it up a little by adding Greek yogurt for tang, jalapeño rings for a bit of heat and color, and Cheddar cheese because I can.
⇓ RED BEANS AND RICE
1 pound dry red kidney beans
Water to cover
1 large yellow onion, diced
3 stalks celery, diced
1 red pepper, diced
5 (at least) cloves garlic, minced
1 cup pickle juice, dill or sweet is fine
5 cups chicken or vegetable broth
1 smoked ham hock
1 pound smoked ham, cut into small cubes
5 bay leaves
1 teaspoon of your favorite hot sauce (I like Cholula)
1 teaspoon Cajun seasoning or Greek seasoning (I use Cavender’s which I get online)
1 teaspoon Yep! seasoning (another online purchase)
1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley or cilantro
1 pound smoked sausage
Hot cooked rice (any will do, but I like brown)
Add beans to a large pot or bowl and cover by 2 inches with water. Place uncovered bowl on a counter overnight. The next morning, discard soaking water. Thoroughly rinse beans, drain well and place in a slow cooker.
Add remaining ingredients—except parsley, smoked sausage and rice—to slow cooker and give everything a stir. Cover and cook on LOW for 4 hours, checking occasionally and stirring beans, making sure none stick to the bottom.
After 4 hours, add the smoked sausage and continue on LOW another 2–3 hours until beans are soft and creamy.
Serve beans over rice with a generous slab of cornbread.
- The spices and seasonings in Southern cuisine, especially down-home Southern food, are key. Cavender’s All Purpose Greek Seasoning has been made in the Ozarks town of Harrison, Arakansas, since 1963. You can order it online.
- I also highly recommend Yep! Seasoning made by the Blue Moon Specialty Foods in Spartanburg, South Carolina. I first tried Yep! when a shaker of it came in a gift basket from friends visiting from the South. I’ve been addicted ever since. Yep! is a peppery seasoning that I use as a dry rub for chicken and fish, seasoning for veggies and so much more. Yep! is available online.
- Red Beans and Rice benefits from the addition of leftover chicken or beef. I’ve chopped up leftover hamburgers cooked on the grill and added them to the pot for dinner the next night. Rotisserie chicken is also a tasty addition. If you want to lighten your carb load, you can have red beans and spinach, red beans and zucchini, or red beans and cauliflower.
⇓ CHEDDAR JALAPEÑO CORNBREAD
1 box Jiffy cornbread mix
1/3 cup milk
1/4 cup plain Greek yogurt
1 cup Cheddar cheese, grated
1/4 teaspoon salt
Pickled jalapeño rings (I like Trader Joe’s Sweet & Hot Jalapeño Rings)
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Grease 10-inch cast iron skillet.
Mix all ingredients except jalapeños in a bowl until combined. Batter will be lumpy.
Spread batter in skillet and dot with Jalapeño rings.
Cook in the oven until golden brown and sides of cornbread are pulling away from the skillet, about 15–20 minutes.