Louisiana is very confusing. There are debates and great misunderstandings regarding the difference between Cajun and Creole. There is also the misconception that all food in Louisiana is spicy. There are many food critics and locals alike that greatly disagree on what you should and should not do when attempting to cook New Orleans food. One thing that is for certain, however, is the fact that red beans with rice is a classic New Orleans dish that does have a level of standardization that you should not deviate from. There are some things that you absolutely must include to make genuine red beans and rice. Red beans and rice is a Creole dish, so it was heavily inspired by French gastronomy. French food commonly includes a mirepoix, a mix of carrots, celery and onions. The New Orleans equivalent is the holy trinity: bell pepper, celery and onions. These are must have ingredients. They go a very long way to flavor the beans. To make sure that you are making the trinity as flavorfully as possible, you need to saute it, rather than simply adding it to the pot before cooking. Sauteing ensures that the water in the vegetables evaporates and that the vegetables begin to caramelize, enhancing the flavor.
The second thing that your beans cannot live without is meat, preferably pork. There are a variety of ways to do this. Any of the following can be added: smoked (or not smoked) ham shanks, Andouille sausage, smoked sausage, pickled pork or chopped ham. Many New Orleans feel it is standard to include at least pickled pork and sausage, either chopped or served whole accompanying the dish. Pork and red beans go extremely well together and it is a very important part of what gives the dish its great flavor, you can cook all of them easily with a cheap rice cooker.
The last thing that you must do while cooking red beans and make sure that you cook them slowly enough to let many of the beans turn soft and turn the dish into a stew. There is a long tradition of eating red beans and rice on a Monday because the women of New Orleans would do their laundry on Monday; since the laundry is time consuming, they needed a dish that was “set it and forget it” (although you cannot forget to occasionally or your beans will stick to the pot). They would cook the red beans slow over a fire all day while they cleaned; creating what has become New Orleans most beloved dish.
While there are some things that you need to do to make real red beans, probably very few residents of New Orleans cook this dish exactly the same way. Rumor has it that Al Copeland’s famous Popeye’s recipe gets its distinct flavor from using finely chopped hot dogs as a cheap substitute to sausage or whole pork. There are also variations in seasoning. My mom’s secret ingredient is a cap full of crab boil. Some people use herbs like thyme or serve with chopped Italian parsley. Many people insist that red beans must be eaten with hot sauce, some say it is not very good. No matter how you cook and eat your red beans, don’t forget the three musts: the holy trinity, pork, and slow-cooking.