There’s Beauty in the Blend

One of the best things about growing up in the US of A is that we enjoy the incredible results of a couple of centuries of culinary influence that comes from such a melting pot of a nation. My fair-haired-blue-eyed ancestors emigrated from Germany during World War II and proudly became legal United States citizens, but that doesn’t mean they left their recipes behind as if they’d never existed. I’m absolutely thankful that so many did the same. Where would our culinary world be if we were limited to indigenous recipes alone? I can absolutely respect that not all dishes that we enjoy in America today were born out of choice and some don’t even have glamorous associations. However, they remain to give evidence of the peoples existence who carried them here, They exist to show the inner strength and fortitude of the peoples who, despite their circumstances, managed to find a sense of Home in their new land.

Often, you’ll find the most culinary diversity at major city seaports along the coasts (though many cuisines are making a steady and deliberate spread across this great country as the peoples have over time). One such a city, New Orleans in Louisiana, is a brilliant example of this blending of cultures and cuisines. From the native inhabitants of Louisiana, to the French explorers landing on its shores in 1682, to the Spanish occupation in the 1700s, to goods trading with Hispanic and Caribbean countries nearby, to the Louisiana Purchase and the introduction of West African influences from the slave trade in the 1800s, New Orleans has developed a distinct culinary culture all its own.

So many dishes come to mind when one thinks of NOLA. Gumbo, Jambalaya, Étouffée, Po’ Boys, Muffalettas, Beignets, and Bananas Foster; but one of my favorites (and one of the simplest) is Red Beans and Rice. No one quite knows where the origin of the dish began. Similar dishes can be found in all of the cultures that left their fingerprints on this region of the United States, but this is one with vague origins that is indisputably New Orleans in flavor and style. It is widely thought to be of Creole (not to be confused with Cajun) connection and one thing that absolutely is agreed upon about the origins of this dish is that it was popularly eaten on Monday evenings. Mondays being wash days, this dish is one you can throw all the ingredients in a big pot over low heat for a few hours. An early set-it-and-forget-it recipe if you will. Monday wash day followed Sunday in which many families enjoyed a more sophisticated dinner which typically included a ham (Sunday ham really is a thing in the South, eh?). They would save the ham bone (nothing wasted) to flavor Monday’s pot of red beans.

If you’ve never used a ham bone or a ham hock to flavor a pot of beans or soup, you’re missing out on so much. I won’t call you “less-than” for ignorance to be fair. When I was young, my family spent some time in Baton Rouge before moving back to Texas. My dad, God rest his soul, enjoyed cooking, but working full time to support his family and the lack of resources available to home cooks today limited his options back then inhibited him from learning to be a better home cook. Occasionally, he would try new recipes, but often he favored (like many families with two working parents in the 90s) boxed mixes such as Hamburger Helper, Tony Chachere’s, Zatarain’s, and the like. I grew up knowing what all these dishes were supposed to look like, but not having a real grasp on how they were prepared outside of a box.

Fast forward to my time in college. I moved into this apartment that included cable with the rent. I was instantly hooked on the Food Network and gained not just a love of cooking (I already enjoyed baking), but of scratch-cooking. It’s been a good while since I’ve shopped for boxed dinners. If I’m gonna make beef stroganoff now, I wanna know all of the ingredients. I want to know the history and the “why” and the “how.” I tried to go down the boxed path for the first time in ages again last year. I had a coupon for a buy-a-package-of-sausage-get-a-box-of-mix-free combo. I was riding on fond memories of childhood. Let’s just leave it at my being terribly disappointed in the outcome. It’s true what Thomas Wolfe wrote, “you can’t go home again.” Trying to revisit the boxed favorites from childhood is a memory best left untarnished in my mind.

Recently, I had a craving for Red Beans & Rice that led me down such a path (linked here). I knew I couldn’t just take the easy way out with a box, so I scoured my cookbooks for a simple, straightforward recipe. I found one in my (usually) reliable copy of Good Housekeeping cookbook. This cookbook usually provides such a great variety of cuisines that I ignored the blatant disregard for ham bone or ham hock. I did not however use canned beans. Once I discovered that you can go from dried beans to cooked in just 20 minutes from the Instant Pot, I haven’t bought a can of beans since if I can find the right ones dried. Plus, I get the added benefit of cooking them in broth and seasonings to taste. (Tip: If I’m not using salted broth or seasoning, I save the bean broth for my garden later!)

This recipe was advertised as a “quick, low-fat” version. I’m not opposed to “quick” meals really. They make for convenient weeknight meals for the working folk! “Low-fat” ones aren’t too enticing in my opinion, however. Fat in your meal helps one feel satisfied. The 80s, low-fat diet craze only made for a very unsated decade. Good fats aren’t bad. As a matter of fact, this dinner ended up being quite fulfilled by the addition of chunks of avocado stirred in. No, it’s not traditional. Not at all, but it worked for me! Leftovers weren’t an issue that week. It would have even been good with a handful of Fritos corn chips scattered on top. Staaahp! You know you like them. Don’t act like you don’t! Growing up in Texas, I know my way around a bag of Fritos. If you’ve never garnished your chili with Fritos, you’re missing something big in your life. A generous square of tender, buttery cornbread would also suffice.

I was a little underwhelmed by this recipe, honestly. In my head I pictured a saucy, mahogany dish concealing piping-hot-and-fluffy alabaster grains of rice. Often this rich, red-brown color is the result of a long-cooked roux in the cuisine of Louisiana. Red Beans & Rice typically isn’t made with a roux, but that’s the color and depth of flavor one comes to expect in this vibrant dish of flavors. Instead, I wound up with with the “diet” version of what I really wanted. I wanted the unctuous sauce and the carbs and the starches. Fresh, light flavors are nice, but they don’t compare with comforting, highly-seasoned ones when that’s what you’re really craving. The dish wasn’t bad overall, it’s just not what I had in mind. Also, Canadian bacon is no match for honest-to-goodness andouille sausage!

The veggie-heavy beans in a simple broth scattered over fluffy white rice was good. It’s just didn’t scratch the itch.

Question: What are some of your childhood favorites in which a healthier version just won’t work?

Currently Reading: Mansfield Now Magazine, June 2021

Scripture of the Day: Take wheat and barley, beans and lentils, millet and spelt; put them in a storage jar and use them to make bread for yourself. You are to eat it during the 390 days you lie on your side.  Weigh out twenty shekels of food to eat each day and eat it at set times.  Also measure out a sixth of a hin of water and drink it at set times.  Eat the food as you would a loaf of barley bread; bake it in the sight of the people, using human excrement for fuel.”  The Lord said, “In this way the people of Israel will eat defiled food among the nations where I will drive them.” -Ezekiel 4:9-13

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