I get a lot of really nice emails. Thomas Leming wrote as a native about his experiences with classic Red Beans and Rice and I just had to share his thoughts. His vegetarian version sounds great, no matter how you eat.
I grew up in South Louisiana where beans are taken pretty seriously. One of my favorite memories from back then is going to LeBlanc's Drive In with my grandfather once or twice a week to get red beans and rice plate lunches. Years later, my wife and I moved to Delaware and I quickly became nostalgic for home. I wanted the RB&R from my youth, but there was a complication: my wife and I had become vegetarians. So, we weren't going to have pork for the beans and the sweet, smoky flavor that imparts is a pretty essential background flavor in good red beans. I've spent the following 15 years tinkering around to get everything just right and my recipe has gone unchanged for the last five or so years. So, I think it's done.
My "final" recipe is built on the classic ingredients (with a non-traditional red bell pepper added for flavor and a little color). I've seen RB&R recipes that call for fresh marjoram, tomatoes (TOMATOES!?), carrots (I nearly fainted) and other stuff that has no place in the dish. I mean, sure, those recipes probably produce delicious beans and rice but they aren't RB&R. Anyway, the ingredients are important to getting things right, but the real trick is the cooking method. I had the ingredients figured out a long time ago, but I couldn't get that background flavor of the pork. Shortly after I got my first Rancho Gordo order years ago, I experimented with the Russ Parsons bean cooking method described in the Heirloom Beans cookbook. I've cooked a whole lot of beans that way since then and it's always pretty amazing. (Marcella's cooked for at least five hours in a dutch oven at 250° with sautéed shallots, garlic, sage and olive oil are mind blowing. Bean soups made this way are also spectacular.) I started cooking my basic RB&R recipe this way out of sheer laziness and magic happened. The low, slow, long cook does something inside the beans, completely melts the vegetables and pulls everything together. Even my pork loving family members want seconds and thirds of these.
1 lb red beans*
2 large yellow onions (finely diced, about 3 1/2 cups)
1 red bell pepper (finely diced, about 1 cup)
1 green bell pepper (finely diced, about 1 cup)
2 stalks celery (finely diced, about 1 cup)
3 cloves garlic (minced)
1 ½ teaspoon dried thyme
2 bay leaves
oil (olive oil works well)
Sauté the onion, celery and peppers in a dutch oven with few tablespoons of oil over medium heat until they have started to brown. Add the garlic, thyme and bay leaf and sauté for a minute or two longer. Add the beans and enough water to cover by a few inches. Bring to a boil, cover and then put it in the oven. I go with 250° if I have a lot of time available, 350° if I want them done (but not perfect) in a few hours. Check the water level every 30-45 minutes to make sure that the beans are covered. As they cook, the level should go down but they should still remain wet. We're not making a soup, but we don't want them dry. Add salt once the beans are tender and check the seasoning each time thereafter when you check the water. The beans are almost done when they are falling apart and the liquid is creamy. Seriously, give this some time to happen. Get these to the desired consistency on the stovetop by adding water and/or while you make the other parts of the meal. I like mine to be saucy but not soupy.
I serve these with a good hot sauce rather than throwing spice in during cooking. I prefer the contrasting acidic heat from the sauce over a background burn from slow cooked cayenne. These are excellent with Deborah Madison's slow cooked collards (with onion, brown butter and some smoked paprika; in Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone) and some cornbread (Deborah Madison's "Northern Cornbread", also in Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone, gets my Southern Boy approval).
*"Red beans." Where I come from, almost everyone uses Camelia Red Kidneys for RB&R. I've used these for years despite being a die-hard Rancho Gordo superfan. But, recently, I experimented with Domingo Rojo and the results were spectacularly good. It was a bit different from the Camelias in structure (smaller bean, slightly thicker skin, slightly different texture) but the final sauce was superior in taste. I'll probably alternate between Camelias and Domingo Rojo from now on because I can't decide which is better. I also have a hunch that Rio Zapes would work well for RB&R. I haven't tried them yet, but I will soon.
I really appreciated his thoughtful response but I had to ask, where's the smoke? The pork is so smoky. "Would you consider adding some Spanish smoked paprika? or smoked salt? Or are you in the no smoke camp?"
The beans that I grew up with weren't super smoky, but I do like that flavor. I use smoked paprika pretty liberally when I'm cooking southern but I haven't tried it in these beans. The deep flavor that comes from the long cooking gives it a nice rounded flavor so I haven't felt the need to smoke it up. Also, I always serves red beans with collards and I use a lot of smoked paprika in those. I mix it all together on my plate so maybe that's why I don't miss it. I don't think adding some to the beans would hurt at all.
And the rest of the story, dear reader, is up to you!