The Food Lab Junior: Dakota’s Red Beans and Rice R…


Red beans and rice illustration from Every Night Is Pizza Night

[Illustration: Gianna Ruggiero. Photos: J. Kenji López-Alt]

“Papa, papa, you’ll never believe it. There. Is. A. BEAN. Growing in the mud kitchen.” Alicia was beaming as she dragged me off to her kidney bean plant, which, sure enough, was sporting a teeny green pod.

This was the next step in the journey that had begun earlier in the spring, when my wife, Adri, showed our daughter how to pick out a couple of the the dried kidney beans that we’d soaked overnight for red beans and rice and put them into cups with damp balls of cotton and set them on a warm windowsill until they germinated, shooting their little green tendrils up into the air. Later, she transplanted them by herself into the corner of the wooden dirt box I’d built for her outdoor mud kitchen.
Over the next few weeks, she watered the plants daily. When she wanted to scoop out some dirt to play with (usually to make mud “cookies” which she’d let dry out in the sun then feed to the plants in the garden as a “treat”), she’d make sure not to scoop out any of the dirt near the bean plants.

At the time, Alicia was deeply into the book What Eats That and its matter-of-fact descriptions of the food chain. She was discovering that a lot of her own food is alive. So long as you involve them in meal planning and cooking, even a three-year-old can grasp that a cucumber or a tomato comes from a living plant, or that the fish we keep in the aquarium are tiny versions of the fish we cook for dinner. But it’s exciting when they find out that even those dried beans that come in plastic bags contain the basic ingredients for life, and that all it takes is a little water and patience to animate it.

This recipe for New Orleans-style red beans and rice, a simplified version of my other red beans and rice recipe, is not only delicious (it is, after all the dish that Dakota uses to cheer up her dad whenever he’s feeling down in my children’s book, Every Night is Pizza Night), but it’s nice and slow, offering plenty of opportunities to get kids involved from start to finish.

Soaking Beans

Soaking the beans overnight is a critical first step that shortens cooking time and promotes more even cooking, and it’s fun to guess how much water the beans are going to absorb. If you have a clear plastic tub, do the soaking in there, using a piece of tape to mark the level of the beans and the level of the water on the first day. Have your kids come up with a hypothesis (and have them say the word!): Will the level of the beans go up, go down, or stay the same? What about the water?

The next day, take a look, put some new tape on the container, and compare.

I find that, at least with my child, framing questions like this as a scientific hypothesis is more effective than framing it as a challenge. Why? Well, with a challenge like “can you guess if it will go up or down?” it becomes personal: They were either right or wrong. But with a hypothesis (“My hypothesis is that the beans will go down”), I find it easier to impress on her that there is no value judgment on whether her hypothesis was correct or not; either way, we learned something new and interesting.

Chopping and Smashing

If your toddler or big kid is already wielding a knife, there are quite a few ingredients that will need some chopping here, and the good thing is that even the meat that goes into red beans and rice is all fully cooked, which means you don’t have to worry about cross-contamination. A three-year-old can practice safe knife skills using a nylon knife set like this, which will easily cut through the cooked sausage this recipe calls for. Long, skinny, grippy foods like sausage make it easy to practice curling their little fingers back and holding the knife against their knuckles to keep their fingers safe. Alicia recently started using an actual metal knife (my sheep’s-foot Wüsthof paring knife), and is now at the point where she sometimes corrects me on knife safety (“Papa, you didn’t do the claw with your fingers!”).

If you aren’t quite comfortable handing a knife over to the kids yet, a little marble mortar and pestle will make short work of the crushed garlic, even with the tiniest hand operating the pestle.

Stirring and Sniffing

Red beans and rice with sausage, cooking in a large pot

If your kids are anything like mine, they are experts at slowly and deliberately putting things into other things. This can come in handy. After the ingredients are chopped and before you start cooking is a good time to combine them into bowls in the order that they’ll be added to the pot. Sausage, onion, bell pepper, and celery in one bowl, crushed garlic in a second, a dozen or so grinds of fresh black pepper in a third (Alicia loves grinding pepper!), then the drained and rinsed beans, smoked pork, and bay leaves in a fourth.

With supervision and a steadying hand on the pot, any kid that’s big enough to reach over the top of a pot with the help of a helper stool can stir vegetables, and it’s fun to watch their transformation as they slowly cook down. If they are not of stirring age or inclination, another interesting activity is to stop every couple of minutes to talk about what smells they are noticing, or rate the intensity of the smell from a scale from one through ten. What you might find is that intensity will initially rise as aromatic chemicals waft through the air and into our noses, but eventually that intensity will start to diminish.

That’s because our olfactory nerves work through a sort of lock-and-key system. Aromatic compounds have specific shapes that correspond to and trigger specific receptors in our nose. We have lots and lots of those receptors, but as they get filled up, our ability to sniff out the same scents will gradually diminish. To show this, shut off the heat at some point while the vegetables are sweating, take a good sniff and note the intensity, leave the room with the kids, and put a closed door between you and the pot. Count out 60 seconds (or sing the alphabet song twice), then come back into the room and sniff again.

If they’ve got functioning olfactory receptors, the kids should notice a distinct increase in aroma intensity. If not, they are defective and you should return them and ask for a refund. (Just kidding. Don’t return your kids.)

Final Flavorings

Pot of finished red beans and rice with a wooden spoon sticking out, next to a white dish of red beans and rice

After adding the soaked beans, the smoked meat, and the bay leaves, all that’s left is to bring it to a simmer and wait. Waiting is not something kids are known to be good at. Might I suggest reading my book 8 to 12 times in a row? That should just about cover the 1 1/2 to 2 hours the beans will take to fully soften.

Once the beans are nice and creamy, there’s time to jam in one last taste-based experiment on seasoning. We all know that salt is an important seasoning that brings out the flavor in other ingredients, but acid is equally important! I’d suggest scooping out a bit of beans into four different bowls. Add a pinch of salt to one, a few drops of cider vinegar to another, salt AND vinegar to a third, and leave the fourth as-is. Taste them all and compare and contrast the differences, then decide whether you want to add some salt, vinegar, neither, or both to your big pot of beans (It’s okay if you and the rugrat disagree on this one, so long as you come to an agreement together in the end.)



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