It's a few minutes after 6:00 on a Mondav evening -- any Monday, really -- and a my early week suppertime ritual is well underway. I've already browned thin-cut coins of smoky pork sausage, used the rendered fat to caramelize a couple of minced onions, and loaded pre-soaked kidney beans into a now-familiar stainless steel pressure cooker. The smells swirling around the house (aromatic vegetables, the world's best andouille sausage smuggled from my Louisiana Motherland) have become a familiar sensory signpost for my week, as regular as Sunday morning church bells or hump day happy hour (take your choice). The pressure cooker's rhythmic steam release -- the measured, pneumatic soundtrack to "The Little Engine that Could" -- means that in an hour or so, I'll have a table full of folks (two to ten) over for a simple Monday supper.
Two Layer Tradition
Red beans and rice is a New Orleans tradition that's synonymous with Monday in the Crescent City. Local culinary custom ties the dish with pre-industrial domestic rhythms. In prosperous houses, Sunday dinner meant roasted ham on the menus, and Mondays were laundry day. In the pre-Maytag era, cooks scrubbed laundry by hand and so needed a dish that could survive for hours on a slow fire without active tending. The resulting riff on the near universal "rice and beans" tradition became a staple in the city's culinary pantheon -- simple and hearty, filling and delicious. And always, ALWAYS served on Monday.
As a home cook in New Orleans, I adopted the city's tradition as my own, and in the last decade, I must have made the dish hundreds of times. On Monday nights, I learned the power of culinary repetition that any grandmother knows all too well -- when you prepare a dish enough times, it becomes a part of you.
Rote builds a repertoire
Over the years, red beans and rice have become my own personal "grandma dish" -- a cornerstone of my kitchen repertoire that I could essentially make in my sleep. After a decade of pretty consistent weekly preparation, I've learned plenty about cooking through this single dish and fed hundreds of neighbors, friends and relations in the process.
With repeated preparation, a dish starts out as a written recipe and gradually becomes more of a cook's process, as different subtle lessons present themselves on the third, twelfth, and 200th tries.
Basic but invaluable kitchen skills develop as a dish becomes part of your repertoire. Your hands learn the feel of a chef's knife smashing garlic cloves against a hardwood cutting board. Your nose can pick out a sautéing onion's flavor on the sweet/hot continuum. Your fingers know the right amount of salt to pinch in the pot, the proper number of grinds from the pepper mill. Your tastebuds can pick out trademark flavors -- the "green" taste of minced parsley, for example -- that a written recipe just can't convey.
And most importantly, repetition helps you learn to correct the inevitable mistakes in the process. After years of cooking my Monday red beans, I can still forget the mystery herb (sweet basil) until right before serving. Sometimes I oversalt or get a little too hyperactive when adding the last bit of pepper sauce. I've learned ways to correct these goofs (cook rice without salt, float a couple of potato slices in the pot to absorb the excess) and try not to make them next time.
Beginning cooks -- and we all are in a way -- can do worse than to start out with a single dish (roast chicken, Nona's moussaka, the perfect vegetarian marinara sauce) and make it their own. As one dish becomes comfortable territory, you can move on to the next.
Into the kitchen
Cooks learn by cooking (go figure) and a weekly, no-pressure ritual can do wonders for your kitchen confidence and reputation among guests.
I remember this as depressurize my cooker underneath running water (pretty dramatic the first dozen times you do it) then mash a cupful of cooked beans to give the batch a silky texture.
Monday after Monday, I've learned and relearned basic but crucial cooking lessons at my own kitchen, usually right before my first guests ring the doorbell.