Shake your pickles!

Few things are as satisfying as the tart crunch of homemade dill pickles - bursting with garlic and spices and fresh cucumber flavor, these easy pickles take only 5 minutes to prepare, though they do need to sit a week in the fridge to reach peak flavor. Four-year-old Miles enjoys helping to make - and eat! - these pickles, and he has invented a little song to sing as he shakes them to distribute the spices:

This recipe is adapted from Homesick Texan; I've added mustard seed and pepper flakes, for a little extra zing, and streamlined the process a bit.

1/2 cup white vinegar
2 TBL kosher salt (or non-iodized table salt)
1 TBL whole black peppercorns
1 TBL whole coriander seeds
1 TBL whole yellow mustard seeds
1/2 tsp pepper flakes, or to taste
3 cloves garlic, smashed
1/2 cup fresh dill, chopped coarsely
6 Kirby cucumbers, sliced in half lengthwise
Combine the vinegar and spices in a 1-quart pickle jar. Shake vigorously to dissolve salt, then add garlic, dill and cucumbers, wedging the slices back-to-back. Add cold water to cover by at least 1/2", cover and shake again to distribute the spices.

Refrigerate for six days, shaking daily while singing.

Red Beans and Rice

Red beans & rice, with a patty of creole hot sausage.

It's been more than 15 years since I left New Orleans, and I still smell "phantom" red beans cooking on Mondays, especially during Carnival season, the stretch between January 6th (12th Night) and Mardi Gras day.

In bygone days, red beans were cooked alongside the laundry on washday - Monday - using Sunday's hambone for seasoning. They'd simmer all afternoon, getting creamy and soaking up the pork fat and aromatic vegetables, then be ladled over steamed white rice, accompanied by a link of grilled sausage, a thick pork chop or a crisp fried chicken breast. You can still find red beans most Mondays on the lunch and dinner specials in restaurants all around the Crescent City.

Making authentic red beans "from scratch" is a labor of love, and does require a little planning, if not much expertise. First, you have to acquire "real" red beans and the essential seasoning meats: pickle pork and andouille sausage.

Dry red kidney beans are available at almost any grocery store and, in a pinch, they'll make a decent pot of red beans and rice. The genuine article is Camellia Brand, a smaller, lighter colored bean than you'll find in a three-bean salad. Camellia red beans cook up creamy and delicious, perfect with pork seasoning meats. For the tenderest, most savory outcome, soak the beans overnight. It doesn't hurt to say a few nice words to them, as well, such as "Oh my, but you're some beautiful beans!" or "Mmmm! You are gonna make a fine pot of red beans and rice!" Do be sincere - the beans can tell.

Pickle pork (AKA pickled pork or pickle meat) is pork shoulder preserved in brine. I can't begin to describe the flavor or texture, except to say that it's unique and wonderful and not really useful for anything other than making red beans, in my estimation. Savoie's makes a nice pickle pork, and you can make your own, if your spouse is understanding about that sort of thing. (My recent attempt at pickling pork, using Chuck Taggert's recipe, was a tragic failure - I had to pitch the whole pot of beans (sobbing), which became aggressively vinegary and bitter. I'll try again, this time rinsing the pork well before adding it to the beans.) If you can't find or make pickle pork, smoked ham is an acceptable substitute - have it sliced thick, then dice it into 1" cubes. A smoked ham hock is even better

Almost everyone has heard of andouille (say ahn-doo-wee) by now, though the real thing is quite a bit different from what you'll find outside of Louisiana. Andouille is a slightly chunky pork sausage, spiked with red, white and black peppers and garlic, then smoked over pecan and/or hickory and sugar cane. The effect is a balance of sweet, spicy and smoky, with an afterburn that'll remind you where this stuff comes from. Savoie's makes my favorite andouille, though there a number of good choices. I don't recommend using a non-Louisiana andouille in your red beans unless you know what "the real thing" is supposed to taste like; you'll be better off with a good quality smoked sausage, such as kielbasa. If you start with a mild sausage, add a dash of cayenne, black and white pepper to compensate.

Fortunately, Camellia red beans and Savoie's pickle pork and andouille are available online from Cajun Grocer, an indispensable resource for NOLA expats. Pick up some CDM coffee and chicory while you're there.

The truly indispensable ingredients, of course, are an appetite and the desire to create a memorable meal.
1 lb red kidney beans
8 - 10 cups water
1/2 lb diced pickle pork or smoked ham, or 1 smoked ham hock
1 lb Louisiana andouille or good quality smoked sausage, sliced on the bias
1 onion, chopped
4 cloves garlic, minced
4 stalks celery, chopped
2 bay leaves
1 tsp dried thyme
pinch each of red, white and black pepper
dash each of Worcestershire and Tabasco
salt to taste
1 bunch parsley, chopped
1 bunch green onions, chopped

For serving:
Extra long grain white rice, steamed
Warm French bread
Crystal hot sauce or Tabasco

The night before: rinse, sort and soak the beans in plenty of water - leave at least a few inches for them to expand as they plump up. Say a few nice words to the beans.

Drain and rinse the beans, and cover them with the water in a heavy-bottomed 6-quart or larger stock pot or dutch oven. Add the pickle pork and bring to a boil over medium heat.

Meanwhile, brown the andouille in a heavy skillet, adding it to the beans as it becomes brown. Saute the onions, garlic and celery in the skillet until transparent, scraping to catch the nice bits of andouille stuck to the bottom. Add to the beans.

Add the rest of the seasonings, but go easy on the salt - the meats will add significant saltiness, and you'll be better off adding salt just before serving.

Reduce heat to a simmer, partially cover and stir occasionally for 2 hours, or until tender.

Five minutes before serving: stir in most of the parsley and green onions, reserving a bit of each for garnish.

Serve over hot extra long grain white rice, sprinkled with parsley and green onions. Pass the hot sauce at the table. Say a few nice words to the beans before devouring.

Red beans freeze very well and taste even better a day after they've been cooked - do take out the bay leaves, though, or they may get bitter.

Homesick NOLA Blues

It's the Monday before Mardi Gras, and I'm 1,900 miles from my hometown of New Orleans, Louisiana, the City the Army Corps of Engineers Forgot(TM).

Time to put on some tunes from Dr. John and Professor Longhair and cook up some NOLA treats - the one foolproof cure for homesick NOLA expatriates. Red beans and rice are on today's menu, and I'll post recipes for Jambalaya and Gumbo as I get a chance.

Wherever you are, however long you've been gone, remember that you can return to New Orleans this week as simply as remembering the smell of red beans at Mother's or the taste of andouille, pheasant and quail gumbo at the Jazz Fest. Bon appetit!

Pork Shoulder Braised in Salsa Verde

Perfect for cold winter days (it got down to 50F in SoCal this morning!), this dish takes very little effort and makes the house smell terrific. Don't be put off by the long cooking time - once you get the pot on the stove, it practically cooks itself.

The cooking process is backwards from "regulation" braising, where you typically brown the meat before adding liquid. In this case, the meat gets "richly browned" in the oven after it's already fork tender, resulting in some nice caramelization without the mess of browning on the stovetop.

This recipe is adapted from Sunset magazine's February 2008 issue; I added garlic and potatoes and used what my butcher calls "boneless ribs" - long, thick slices of pork shoulder - rather than a shoulder roast.

Serve over rice (yeah, I know: potatoes and rice!), with flour tortillas on the side (three starches for the price of one!) and a dark Mexican beer. Don't invite any friends on the Atkins diet.

3 1/2 lbs bone-in pork shoulder or 3 lbs "boneless pork ribs"
1 (15 ounce) bottle salsa verde
1 medium onion, finely chopped
6 cloves garlic, peeled
3 cups reduced-sodium chicken broth
2 teaspoons cumin seeds
2 teaspoons coriander seeds
1 teaspoon dried oregano
6 small potatoes
1/2 cup chopped fresh cilantro

Trim excess pork fat. Put meat in a large casserole or Dutch oven with salsa, onion, broth, cumin seeds, coriander seeds, garlic and oregano. Bring to a boil over high heat; reduce heat, cover, and simmer for 2 1/2 hours. Add potatoes and continue to simmer until meat is very tender when pierced, about 30 minutes more.

Preheat oven to 375°. With tongs, transfer meat and potatoes to a rimmed baking pan. Bake until richly browned, 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, skim and discard fat from pan juices. Boil juices, stirring, until reduced to about a third of their original volume, 8 to 10 minutes.

With 2 forks, tear meat into large shreds. Add back to pan and stir in chopped cilantro. Season with salt to taste - you may not need any, depending on the salsa you used.

Serve with tortillas and more salsa verde. A dab of sour cream or crema on the potatoes is a nice touch.