Recipe: basic red beans

After seeing lots of local media love for the new Mississippi Fish Shack (see here, here, here, and so on), I decided to give it a try. After all, I love making Southern food right, and have rarely found it done well in a restaurant. To me, a lot of Southern food is like Italian; it depends so heavily on good ingredients and is so clear when the ingredients are poor (food-service breading just isn’t the same as fresh-ground cornmeal). My very early post on “restaurant mouth” came from a pseudo-southern meal that was just terrible. Quick review: fried fish was pretty good, red beans and rice ok, fried okra nasty. The beans tasted canned, with a strange gooey sauce and just a hint of unidentifiable meat flavor. They did not, however, have the over-salted preservative-laden flavor that I usually associate with restaurant mouth, and I give credit for that. They just didn’t taste that interesting and the texture was screwy.

So anyway, I came home and made up a batch of red beans my way. I’m sure there’s a million ways to do these, and this was a bit more complicated than a basic red bean dish, but this approach generated a reasonably tasty dish with all whole ingredients that can easily be found locally and seasonally. I’m tagging it as fall for when things are fresh, but we had everything on hand in late January, preserved. Because I used some scraps of goat meat that needed tenderizing, I simmered them with the cooking beans to produce a nice, tender melt-in-your-mouth texture that I’m sure would work with any other meat too. Vegetarians can easily opt out, but the long-simmered meat adds a very nice and authentic flavor (bacon is an obvious choice here if you have it).

2 cups dry red beans (Missouri-grown, from Root Cellar)
12 oz cubed meat (our goat meat)
1-2 cups chopped onions (ours)
4-5 cloves minced garlic (ours)
2 hot minced peppers (ours)
healthy dashes of paprika and allspice (bulk organic)
1/4 cup dried parsley (ours; fresh would be better)
1 basil cube (we make thick basil pesto and freeze it in ice trays to drop into winter soups; this would be the equivalent of almost 1/2 cup loose-chopped basil)
1 quart broth/stock (our goat broth)
2 bay leaves (bulk organic)
2 cups green beans (ours, frozen)
2 cups okra (ours, frozen)
2-3 cups mixed greens, such as mustard, kale, collards, spinach, beet greens (I used our frozen spinach and beet greens, but mustard would have been best)
2 cups chopped juicy tomatoes (our canned tomatoes from summer)

Cooked rice if desired (Missouri-grown Martin rice)

Simmer the red beans and meat in lots of water for the beans’ full cooking time, usually 2-3 hours. Add salt about halfway through, when beans are just starting to soften. When soft, you have the option of draining the liquid to reduce flatulence, or saving some of it to keep the meat flavor. If you’re going to drain, you might consider simmering the meat separately in the broth/stock to achieve the same tenderizing effect while preserving flavor.

In any case, when the beans are almost done, saute the onions, garlic, and hot peppers in oil in a large soup pot until soft and fragrant. Add the spices and cook just a bit longer. Then dump in broth, beans, meat, tomatoes, and bay leaves. Simmer a while to allow flavors to blend. There are two ways to handle the vegetables. You can add them one at a time to get just the right cooking time (okra, then green beans, then greens) or you can just toss them all in and cook a long time to get a nice soft stew. I took the latter approach with no complaints; a bonus is that okra when cooked for a long time releases its “goo” and becomes a nice thickener for the liquid. You don’t get that effect when you toss it in at the end. Of course, you’ll want to add salt and pepper to taste.

This is one of those recipes that can be altered all over the place to fit your tastes and ingredients. The point, really, is that there’s no need for processed ingredients, manufactured flavors or spice mixes, or other such foolishness. Cooked dry beans are of far higher quality than canned, and the rest is just fresh whole ingredients and whatever whole spices and herbs you like in your beans. Sorry, MFS, these tasted a lot better than yours, though I may come back for more fried fish.

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