There are red beans. And then there are red beans.
For Mateo Mackbee, making the classic Creole dish red beans and rice exactly like his New Orleans-based grandfather did meant one thing: Camellia brand kidney beans, which are packed and sold in Louisiana.
But in Bloomington, where Mackbee grew up? You couldn't get them.
"We really couldn't find them when we were younger, and so we would bring at least one or two extra suitcases down to New Orleans and they were specifically set aside to bring back enough Camellia red beans for about six months," Mackbee remembered. "If anybody came up to visit us here, that was the one request, that you bring as many Camellia red beans as you could find."
Now, as chef and owner of Krewe Restaurant in St. Joseph, Minn., Mackbee is still importing those Camellia beans for his memory-laden red beans and rice, one of his signature dishes. (And for the rest of us, there's online shipping, or regular kidney beans in a pinch.)
"Even in the restaurant when I make it and taste it, I just have flashes of memories that come back all the time," he said. "Because of any of the dishes that I cook, the red beans are my absolute favorite and the one that holds the most memories of growing up."
The memories begin with visits to his grandparents.
"I can remember as far back as 7 or 8 eating at my grandfather's house in New Orleans, and as we got older, it was always something that we would crave. This was one of those dishes you could smell from the curb when you got out of the car and everything was going to be great that day," he said.
But the nature of the slow-cooked dish required patience. "This is definitely one of those dishes that you cannot rush if you want it to turn out well," he said.
Anytime he or a cousin tried to sneak a taste of the beans stewing on the stove before they were ready they'd get a slap on the hand, he said, his grandfather or mother shouting, "Get your hand out of there."
Krewe's recipe is inspired by the one followed by Mackbee's family. He always starts with dry beans, soaking them overnight to make the cooking time go faster. (If you have to use canned beans, "you can get a version of it that I would say is somewhat acceptable," said Mackbee, chuckling. "Not the same, but it can be done.")
To that, he adds celery, onion, Tony Chachere's Creole seasoning and — his twist — smoked turkey legs (available in some grocery stores' meat section). He then deepens the flavor with andouille sausage and ham. The beans cook low and slow until they start to burst and their centers get creamy. Spooned over jasmine rice, it's a stew that becomes a hearty, homey meal.
Back at his grandfather's house, when it was finally ready, the consumption of red beans and rice came with its own ritual.
"We weren't necessarily a family that sat around a table and ate; it was kind of just everything was on the stove and you grabbed it and went your little direction," Mackbee said. "But this dish in particular was one where we would sit down and sit together and it would get quiet as everybody was digging their face into the red beans and rice."
Louisiana Red Beans and Rice
Serves 6 to 8.
Note: This recipe from chef Mateo Mackbee was passed down from his grandfather. It's one of the specialties at his St. Joseph restaurant Krewe. If using dried beans, this recipe must be prepared in advance. Smoked turkey legs are available in some grocery stores.
• 2 lb. dried red beans, Camellia brand or any available brand of kidney beans (see Note)
• 1 smoked turkey leg (see Note)
• 2 tbsp. Tony Chachere's Creole seasoning, plus more to taste, divided
• 2 tbsp. Diamond Crystal kosher salt, divided
• 1 tbsp. black pepper, divided
• 1 1/2 c. diced white onion
• 1 1/2 c. diced celery
• 1 1/2 c. cooked andouille sausage, sliced
• 1 1/2 c. diced ham
• 2 c. jasmine rice
• Parsley and green onion, chopped, for garnish
Soak beans overnight. Rinse beans and strain out water.
In a large stock pot, bring 8 cups of water to a boil. Add turkey leg and 2 tablespoons of Creole seasoning. Boil until turkey skin starts to pull away from the end of the bone.
Add beans, 1 tablespoon of salt, 1/2 tablespoon of black pepper and continue to boil until beans are about halfway cooked. Reduce heat to a low simmer and add onion, celery, sausage and ham. Low and slow is the best method so you don't scorch the beans. Continue to cook until half the beans have burst open, and the turkey leg meat has begun to fall off the bone. There should be a mix of the bean creaminess and whole cooked beans.
Meanwhile, cook 2 cups of jasmine rice according to your liking. Taste beans and adjust seasoning, adding remaining salt, pepper and Creole seasoning, up to 6 tablespoons, as desired. Remove turkey leg bones and break up meat, either in the pot or in a separate bowl. Return meat to pot, mix and serve over rice, garnishing with parsley and green onion.