The Best Red Beans Are a Little Bit Cajun and a Little Bit Basque || RECIPE

 Spain meets Acadiana. 📷:  Denny Culbert

Spain meets Acadiana. 📷: Denny Culbert

This story originally appeared on TASTE.

There was a time, New Orleans mythology says, when red beans and rice were a Monday-only kind of dish. New Orleans’s homemakers, busy washing clothes all day, the story goes, would throw a pot of red beans on the stove, buttressed with leftover pork from the day before. Come day’s end, the red beans had gone soft, ready to be served with one of Louisiana’s finest crops: rice. Over the decades, red beans and rice became anytime food, especially for celebrations. You see it at birthdays and funerals. You bring it for Mardi Gras, that party to beat all parties.

New Orleans isn’t the only place with a thing for red beans. There’s rajma, a creamy red bean stew from Punjab, and gallopinto, a rice-and-beans dish that’s ubiquitous in Nicaragua. In Spain’s Basque country, it’s alubias con sacramentos.

Last September, my boyfriend and I drove through parts of the Spanish Basque country. We hiked Mount Adarra, passing rows of cows as we crested the summit and looked out over the half-moon-shaped Bay of Biscay and the city of San Sebastián. After our descent, we drank cider and ate plates of boiled meats, tortilla Española and cheesy croquetas at a Basque cider house, called an erretegia. My Basque friend, Gontzal, chaperoned us from bar to bar, eating the local version of tapas called pintxos. Gontzal even cooked for us—fresh anchovies, an omelet with salt cod, and sautéed guindillas (mild green peppers).

It was only when we returned home to New Orleans and I started digging into Alexandra Raij’s The Basque Book that I realized all the foods Brandon and I missed while we were in Spain: marmitako (fisherman’s stew), lamb meatballs with fresh peas, the Basque version of ratatouille called pisto. That’s always how it is with travel. You don’t realize what you didn’t know until you know it.

 Making ribs manageable. 📷:  Denny Culbert

Making ribs manageable. 📷: Denny Culbert

While paging through the book, I noticed remarkable similarities between Raij’s recipe for Basque red beans and the ubiquitous red beans of my adopted home. New Orleans–style red beans are a Creole dish. Basque red beans, with their allotment of two kinds of sausage, a glut of other pork products, and the obligatory reliance on a vinegary, chile-hot condiment, were already singing in the key of Cajun. I wondered if I could prepare these beans the Basque way, with the addition of some porky Louisiana soul.

I had freezer stock from two of Cajun country’s best butchers: smoked pork sausage from Chop’s Specialty Meats, and boudin, that Cajun pork-and-rice sausage staple, from Billy’s Boudin & Cracklins. I used those in place of the recipe’s chorizo and blood sausage. I added ribs and tasso (southern Louisiana spiced smoked pork) in place of jamón Serrano.

I didn’t have washing to do the day I made the beans. I did get distracted, though, and let them cook longer than I intended. Some of them turned pulpy. This means the beans’ texture was a lot like Popeye’s red beans. This is not a problem, because Popeye’s red beans are mighty good.

There’s no point in making a small amount of red beans and rice. I gave some to our neighbors across the street, as you do down this way, and my boyfriend and I still had red beans for days. Turns out every day is a good day when every day feels like a New Orleans Monday.

Adapted from The Basque Book by Alexandra Raij, Eder Montero and Rebecca Flint Marx

In this recipe, you want dried chiles that aren’t too hot. Guajillos or New Mexican chiles would be ideal. If you want to un-Louisiana the dish, you could substitute prosciutto for the tasso and chorizo and/or blood sausage for the boudin and smoked pork sausage. I think you get the idea—there are lots of ways to play with this recipe.

Cajun-Basque Red Beans

Serve 6–8
Adapted from The Basque Book by Alexandra Raij, Eder Montero and Rebecca Flint Marx

  • 1 pound dried red beans

  • 1 large onion, unpeeled, ends cut off

  • 1 leek, white and green parts only

  • 1 carrot, peeled

  • 1 head of garlic, unpeeled, top cut off

  • 1 bay leaf

  • 3 sprigs of thyme

  • 2 dried chiles, stems and seeds removed

  • 1 small head green cabbage, cut in half through the stem

  • 2 ounces tasso

  • 2 pounds pork ribs, in one piece (baby back is ideal)

  • kosher salt

  • 1-2 boudin links

  • 1-2 smoked pork sausage links

  • ¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil

  • 6 cloves garlic, sliced very thin

  • jar of small, thin pickled green peppers (like pepperoncini)

  • Cooked long-grain rice, for serving

  1. In a large stockpot, combine the beans, onion, leek, carrot, garlic, bay leaf, thyme, dried chiles, half the cabbage, tasso, ribs, and a couple tablespoons salt. Cover with about 6 inches of water and bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer and cook for about an hour and a half. Add the boudin and smoked sausage and cook for 20 minutes. Remove the ribs, boudin, and smoked sausage and let cool. Then cut the ribs, boudin, and sausages into 6 to 8 pieces each.

  2. Continue cooking the beans until they’re tender. This could take another hour and a half or so.

  3. Meanwhile, bring a medium saucepan of salted water to a boil. Cut the remaining cabbage into thin strips and boil until the strips are tender, about 6 minutes. Drain well and transfer to a plate.

  4. When the beans are tender, remove the garlic, cabbage, tasso, leek, thyme sprigs, bay leaf, and any large chile pieces. Remove the onion and carrot, peel the onion and add the peeled onion and carrot to a blender. Add about a cup of the beans and bean broth to the blender and blend until smooth. Return the pureed beans to the pot. Cook for another 10 minutes to allow the puree to meld with the other beans. Taste and season with salt.

  5. In a small saucepan, add the oil and garlic and warm over medium-low heat until the garlic turns just golden. Add half the garlic and oil to the beans and pour the rest over the cabbage.

  6. Serve the beans with the reserved meat, pickled peppers, and cabbage. You can reheat the meat in a 300℉ oven for 10 minutes or so. Serve with rice.