It says a lot about my life these days that my posts for Meatless Monday are written and published on Wednesdays. I assure you, the meals described are prepared and eaten on Mondays, in accordance with my pledge. I’m just not in a position to write anything about them until later in the week.
Inefficiency is one reason; I’ve been plagued by a rash of it lately. For instance, on Monday I forget the diaper bag somewhere and had to track it down with phone calls. Once located, I hade to find time in my work day on Tuesday to retrieve it. The temporal toll of forgetting that one small item? About 45 minutes–a fairly significant amount of time, when you consider it. Add this to the hour and a half I spent at the doctor’s office having my ear drum punctured (yippee! — seriously) and we’re talking about much time lost.
That said, Monday’s meal was a delicious model of efficiency. Ribollita is one of those wonderful Italian dishes that manages to be both thrifty and sublime at the same time. Take the remnants of day old soup — typically minestrone or the old Italian classic, beans and greens — pour it over some day old bread; douse everything with olive oil; sprinkle it with good parmesan cheese; bake at 400 degrees for about half an hour. Hey, presto — Buon appetito!
I followed a recipe from Heirloom Beans by Steve Sando and Vanessa Barrington, although this is a dish that doesn’t really need a recipe. It does require a good quantity of soup though, which I made with some of Rancho Gordo’s delicious borlotti beans.
I suppose I should just accept my addiction to Rancho Gordo beans. These beans are always in my thoughts: when did we have them last? who will notice that we just had them? is it okay to eat them for both lunch and dinner? am I talking about them too much? is it too soon to order some more?
See? These are some of the same kinds of questions addicts ask. At least I don’t have to lurk around in dark alleys to get Rancho Gordo beans, although I would if it came to that.
Fortunately, there is a much more efficient way to get Rancho Gordo beans. Just click on this link and order away. And, I promise you, I’m not on the RG payroll or anything.
Back to the ribollita: it’s a great way to use up leftover soup and bread and it takes no time at all to pile the ingredients up in a casserole dish and bake them. Jim told me that it’s the best thing he’s ever eaten. He’s generous with his praise, but I liked it a lot, too. It’s warm and filling, perfect food for a cold January evening. Sando’s recipe calls for stacking the bread in layers in the casserole dish or dutch oven and then pouring the soup over each layer. I wasn’t wild about the resulting texture though. The bottom layer was a bit mushy. Next time, I’ll make ribollita with just one layer so that all the bread winds up with a nice, crunchy topping.
Here’s a very basic recipe for Ribollita. My own version happened to be vegetarian, in honor of Meatless Monday, but there’s no reason that the soup cannot contain meat if that’s what you have on hand. Also, these measurements and pan sizes are approximate. Adapt the recipe to accommodate the amounts of leftovers that you have.
Ribollita (my riff on a recipe found in Heirloom Beans)
Around 4-6 cups of brothy soup (minestrone, vegetable, etc. Anything with beans and cabbage is nice)
6-8 slices of good day old bread, sliced about 1/2 inch thick and rubbed on both sides with a garlic clove
1/4 cup olive oil
1/2 cup freshly grated parmesan cheese
Preheat over to 400 degrees. Pour 2 inches worth of soup into a 9×12 inch baking dish with 4 inch sides or other appropriately-sized baking dish. Layer the bread on top of the soup and dunk it in to moisten the slices. Sprinkle with olive oil. Top with the cheese and bake, uncovered for 25-30 minutes (until the ribollita is bubbly and the top is nicely browned). Serves about 4.
By the way, the ribollita itself did not make great lunch leftovers. The bread became gummy and unpleasant from soaking up all of the broth. Microwaving did not help matters. It is better to make the ribollita in small batches than to make a big pan of it and reheat it.
After posting on a new tradition recently, it seemed appropriate to follow up with a post about an old tradition, one that, truth be told, I no longer observe: Monday Red Beans & Rice.
Where do old traditions go when they die?
Turns out this tradition is alive and well–at least according to the Camellia Beans Company--it just hasn’t fared so well at my house.
But it used to.
Only, not on Mondays.
Well, on some Mondays, but not every Monday.
Let me explain: I grew up in southern Louisiana, where the tradition of Monday Red Beans & Rice was started and continues to thrive. Like so many culinary traditions, it began as a matter of convenience. The idea was to cook something that could simmer all day long while the ladies took care of the laundry, which was traditionally done on Mondays. Red beans fit the bill. However, around my childhood home, laundry day could be any day of the week, depending upon who needed clean skivvies, so there was no need to set aside a specific day for laundry and beans. But we did eat the traditional red beans and rice once a week, if in a somewhat more random fashion.
It’s hard to argue with beans. They’re cheap, healthy, easy to make, and delicious. I’m sure that red beans and rice must have been one of the first meals I learned to make, but I can’t recollect the first time I made them. They’re just one of those foods that I’ve always eaten and always cooked, a food to count on.
And I’ve counted on them throughout my adulthood too, cooking them for nearly all of my friends at one time or another. When I moved in with Jim and became the primary cook in the household, I merrily prepared red beans and rice every week.
Until he balked.
Apparently, I make a lot of meals that contain beans in one form or another, and Jim started to feel inundated by them. He likes beans, but not every day. When faced with a barrage of them, Jim became, quite literally, a bean counter. After one notably “beany” week, he finally rebelled, insisting that he could stomach beans only once per week.
Once per week?
I ignored his complaints for a while, but they grew increasingly urgent. For me, the crux of the problem was that Jim counted all manner of legume towards the final weekly bean-count. He maintained — wrongly — that lentils, split peas, garbanzo beans, black beans, lima beans, navy beans, and red beans were all the same food: beans.
But this simply isn’t true.
I concede the point that black beans, lima beans, navy beans, and red beans are all, well, they’re all beans. However, lentils are not beans; they’re actually more closely related to peas, and split peas are not beans at all; they’re … peas! Garbanzo beans? Ha! Peas again! At least as far as I’m concerned.
The defense worked for a while, but I eventually stopped using it. I can’t feel happy knowing that I’m cooking food that people really don’t want to eat, especially Jim, who is always so enthusiastic about my cooking. I ceded the semantic high ground, and scaled back to once a week our consumption of anything bean-like. And, somehow, red beans were squeezed off of the schedule by the worldly chick pea and the trendy lentil.
This is rather unfortunate because, of all the foods I cook, red beans and rice is the one dish that is most hardwired into my sense of origins. Never do I feel most connected to my–dare I say this?–roots than when I make red beans and rice. The smell of them cooking conjures up a chain of memories from my past. I feel linked to all of the women in my life who have cooked the meal — my mother, aunts, grandmothers, great-grandmothers — some of whom cooked and ate red beans and rice as the tradition mandates, on laundry-Monday. No other dish asserts this connection to me as profoundly as do red beans and rice, not even other Creole dishes like jambalaya or gumbo.
Generally, I eschew my Southern identity and live, paradoxically, in a kind of internal exile here in the South. Cooking red beans & rice, however, gives me a temporary feeling of belonging to a place and a culture that is, in its own inimitable way, Southern. This makes red beans and rice a rather unique artifact of my heritage: a vestigial aspect of my “Southernness” that I can celebrate.
Here’s a recipe for an old favorite, a traditional dish that deserves a spot in anyone’s weekly lineup.
1 green bell pepper, finely diced
2 stalks of celery, finely diced
1 medium white onion, finely diced
3-4 cloves of garlic, finely minced
1/2 lb. smoked sauced, preferably Conecah brand; cut links lengthwise into quarters, then into 1/4-1/2 inch pieces
1 pound of dried red beans, preferably Camellia brand
8-10 cups of water
Hot sauce, preferably Crystal brand, to taste
1 large handful of Italian parsley, coarsely chopped
Salt & Pepper
Although a lot of the bean recipes stipulate a lengthy presoak for the beans, I never do this. The recipe on the back of the package of Camellia red beans, surely a reliable source of bean information, does not include this step either. However, you should rinse the beans and carefully pick out the duds.
Sauté the “holy trinity” (what folks in Louisiana call the combination of bell pepper, celery, and onion), the garlic, and about 1/4 of the sausage in olive oil over medium-high heat until vegetables are soft. Add the red beans and cover with around 8 cups of water. Stir and bring to a boil. Lower heat to low and simmer for about 2 hours (but sometimes as long as 4, depending upon the age of the beans), stirring occasionally. It may be necessary to add water to keep the beans covered. When the beans begin to soften, add the remaining sausage and stir more frequently. You want the beans to be thick and creamy, and stirring will help you to achieve this quality. Just before serving, add the parsley, hot sauce, and salt and pepper to taste. Serve over white rice. I wish I liked brown rice with this– yes, it’s healthier– but I always serve red beans with white rice because it’s traditional. To wit–
Steamed White Rice
Steamed white rice is easy to make, but it’s also easy to make badly. Practice makes perfect. The ratio of rice to water is 1 to 2; this recipe is easily doubled.
1 cup long grain white rice
A scant 2 cups of filtered water, err on the side of less as opposed to more
1 tsp. salt
1 tbs. butter
Put all of the ingredients in a large covered saucepan. Bring to a boil; reduce temperature to low. Steam, without opening the pot’s lid, for 20 minutes. Turn off heat. Leave the pot on the warm burner for an additional 10 minutes. Remove lid; gently fluff rice with a fork before serving.