"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 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
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.)
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.)
Why It Works
- Soaking beans with salt overnight shortens the cooking time and ensures they cook more evenly.
- Multiple smoked meat products improve the flavor of the beans and their cooking liquid.
- Yield:Serves 6 to 8 adults or a whole lotta kids
- Active time: 15 minutes
- Total time:11 hours
- 1 pound (450g) dried red kidney beans
- Kosher salt
- 1 tablespoon (15ml) vegetable oil
- 1 pound (about 450g) cooked sausage, such as Andouille, kielbasa, or hot dogs, cut into 1/2-inch disks
- 1 large onion, finely chopped (about 12 ounces; 340g)
- 1 green bell pepper, stemmed, seeded, and finely chopped (about 8 ounces; 225g)
- 4 ribs celery, finely chopped (about 8 ounces; 225g)
- 4 medium cloves garlic, minced or smashed in a mortar and pestle
- Freshly ground black pepper
- 1 smoked ham hock, smoked turkey leg, or any small hunk of smoked pork, such as ham or a smoked pork chop (optional)
- 3 bay leaves
- 1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar
- Hot sauce, such as Crystal or Frank's, to taste
- Cooked white rice, for serving
Place beans in a large bowl and cover with 6 cups (1.5L) cold water. Set aside at room temperature for 8 to 16 hours. Drain and rinse. Now would be a good time to have kids pick out a few beans to grow into sprouts.
In a large Dutch oven, heat oil over medium-high heat until shimmering. Add sausage, onion, bell pepper, and celery. Season with salt and cook, stirring, until vegetables have softened and are just starting to brown around the edges, about 8 minutes. If you’ve got a helper stool that lets your kids get up to stovetop level, consider letting them stir with a towel in their hand while you steady the pot. Add the garlic and cook, stirring, until fragrant, about 45 seconds.
Grind some black pepper into a small bowl, then stir it into the pot, stirring and sniffing until it gives off fragrant aroma, about 30 seconds. Add beans, along with enough water to cover by about 2 inches (roughly 6 to 8 cups), smoked pork or turkey (if using), and bay leaves. Bring to a boil and reduce to a bare simmer. Cover and cook until beans are completely tender, 1 1/2 to 2 1/2 hours. (Older beans can take longer.)
Remove the lid and continue to cook, stirring occasionally, until the liquid has thickened and turned creamy, about 20 minutes. If the pot starts to look dry before the stew turns creamy, add a cup of water and continue simmering. When it’s nice and creamy, stir in the cider vinegar, then have your little helpers taste a spoonful and ask them if it needs any salt. Double check for yourself, add more salt as necessary, and then bring the whole pot to the table.
Serve the red beans over steamed white rice, adding hot sauce at the table as desired.