My grandmother, Maxine, was the best cook I’ve ever known, and the most instinctive. I don’t believe I ever saw her checking a recipe; in fact, I don’t think she owned a cookbook. No food scales for that woman; no careful leveling of a precise cup of flour. She was from the “just put in some butter about the size of an egg” cooking school. And I’m grateful that she passed that philosophy on to me.
One of the things we all think of when we mentally revisit our grandparents’ farm is the smell of red beans bubbling away on the stove. Grandma’s beans were a staple in our family. She served her bowls with big stacks of soft, white bread and a dish of softened butter for slathering. I sometimes do the same, but my family leans more toward corn bread.
I had a hankering for Grandma’s beans this week. Here’s how it goes:
Normally I just sort, clean and add however many beans looks right at the time, but I thought I’d probably better measure if I was actually going to share a recipe. As it happened, I didn’t have very many red beans left, so I just sorted through what I had. It’s important to sort through because there are invariably a handful of uglies in there.
After rinsing and measuring, I found out I’d used 2 1/2 cups of small red beans.
Then I chopped 1/2 of an onion I found in the fridge. I will sometimes put a whole onion in there if I feel like it, but my philosophy is “use what you have,” and since I had 1/2 an onion, that’s how it went. I put the chopped onion in my cast iron skillet along with six slices of bacon, cut in small pieces. This I cooked until the onions were translucent. Oh, I wish you could have smelled that pile of loveliness.
When this mixture is ready, pour the whole thing (bacon grease and all) over the waiting beans. I know what you’re thinking … bacon grease? Trust me on that. Everything’s better with a little dab of bacon grease. And I’ve actually healthied-it up for you. Grandma used to use much more bacon and still go to the fridge for a scoop or two of bacon grease she kept in there.
Over all this, start pouring water. Usually I just do it till it looks right, but again, I measured for you. Turns out I added 10 cups of water to start, and probably added another 3 or 4 as the day went on.
Salt and pepper the pot a bit and bring it all to a boil. Then put the lid on the pot, reduce the heat to a simmer, and cook it a long, long time. All day, if you can. The longer you cook it, the better it will taste.
You’ll want to add more salt and pepper as you go along, and be sure to keep an eye on the pot so the beans don’t dry out. You want to have a good amount of broth for dunking all that bread later.
Note that I didn’t soak my beans overnight as most people tell you to do. I just don’t. But if it makes you feel better to do that, you may 🙂
Sometimes I add a tiny bit of beef bouillon, although I prefer to let the bacon flavor stand alone. Sometimes I’ll add a dash or two of Tabasco. I’m sure there are all sorts of things you could add, but this is how I remember Grandma’s beans … so I keep it nice and simple.
I cook these, appropriately, in the Dutch oven I inherited from Grandma. My very favorite pot … for all sorts of reasons. I consider this Dutch oven to be an heirloom. My grandmother gave it to me; I will probably leave it to my daughter-in-law, who has embraced cooking with all her heart; and she will likely pass it on to my grandson, who is the most enthused cook in the family (at 9!).