February 10, 2013

Veggie Mardi Gras 101.

Some holidays and festivals lend themselves easily to vegetarian and vegan adaptations.

Mardi gras is not one of them.

If you’ve been to New Orleans—during Mardi Gras or any other time of the year—you know it isn’t just a city, it’s an experience. New Orleans is one of the most sensually rich cities I’ve been to. From the magnolias, to the spices in the air in the French quarter, to the vetiver from local perfumers and voodoo shops, to the warm rains, to the dark, bitter chicory coffee…every cobblestoned turn awakens the senses.

So, while often I play in the kitchen and dabble in different fusions and substitutions in my cooking, if I’m going to make New Orleans [read: Nawlins] style red beans and rice, I want to cook the spirit of the place right into it.

While the omission of ham is heresy to most Cajuns, I have never had anything but a call for seconds from omnivores and veggies alike.

Now, the thing you need to know about Southern cooking is it’s often more a story than a recipe; it’s about the process more than the specifics. Skip your measuring—just make it.

1. Take a heavy pan (I like my cast iron skillet for this, but use what you like) and pour a bit of olive oil in the bottom. Start at the center and then twist your wrist to coat the pan…just enough and not too much. Put this on medium heat.

2. Dice up the trinity: green bell pepper, celery and yellow onion. For this amount of beans, I use (give or take) one green pepper, two stalks of celery and one medium onion.

3. Put that whole mess in the pan. You want to brown it all until the lighter vegetables are golden—not browned or burned.

4. Scoop it all up and put it in a stock pot with a bag (about 14 ounces for those of you who are measuring) dried red beans and water or veggie stock…about six to eight cups all told.

5. Then comes the important part: the spices. You need cayenne, bay leaf, sea salt, sage, garlic, oregano, and—if you can get it—I love to put some file powder in there (it’s used more often in gumbo, but I love it in beans and rice too).

6. And then…we wait. Cajun cooking has that magical feel to it like you are concocting some giant cauldron of deliciousness. It’s the time it takes to all meld together that makes the difference. Patience and allowing the heat to build slowly is an ingredient in itself (and not just in beans and rice).

While you’re waiting, cook some rice. Brown rice is ideal nutritionally, but if you want authentic taste-wise, go with the white stuff. It’s one of the few times I’d recommend it.

And there you go! Hot sauce and cornbread on the side should go without saying. I’m partial to Dixie over Tabasco, at least for this recipe.

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