Red Beans and Rice (It's gray, it's chilly, this is bright and spicy)

It's nearly the end of March, and though we had a week of very lovely and mild weather, more normal weather has resumed - blustery, rainy, and gray as can be. There is hardly a striation in the clouds, it's that gray. I don't know if I can use striation in that previous sentence, but I did anyway. Anyway, it's kind of depressing, but to cheer myself, I make things like red beans and rice. Some will look at this recipe and call me a blasphemer of the south because this recipe uses bacon instead of sausage or ham, but I really love it this way. Unfortunately, I have no idea where this recipe originates from, though my best guess is that it's from a newspaper in either Chicago or Greensboro. It's a recipe I've had for quite a while, and makes for a delicious, satiating meal. Even better, it improves with age, and you can eat the leftovers for two days straight, or rather I can eat the leftovers for two days straight, which is a personal record, as I generally tire quickly of the same anything.

This is a fairly simple meal to make, though there's a lot of prep work involved ... do it ahead of time and you can pretend you're a television chef, adding prepped bowls of this and that. Sadly, no sous chef is going to do the work for you, unless you have a helpful kid around, or a partner who owes you a favor.

You will need a large (4-6 quarts) heavy-bottomed pot with a lid, cutting board, knives, bowls for holding your chopped stuff, and a shot glass for measuring out your Tabasco. Believe me, it's much easier than trying to shake it into a measuring spoon.

Go to the grocery store and in the vegetable area, grab two small peppers, one red, one orange or yellow, or get fancy and get all three colors, but use half of one yellow and one orange with the red.  Also buy one bunch of scallions (aka green onions), a large yellow onion, and a garlic bulb.

At the meat counter, buy four slices of thick sliced bacon. You could buy a package of bacon and use that, but I really prefer the thickness here, plus I find the skinnier bacon more challenging to dice while raw. Don't go too lean on the bacon, the fattiness is a good thing for coating the rice.

You will also need two 15 ounce cans of red beans. Not kidney beans or chili beans, these are just called red beans, you'll find them in the bean section.

Pantry staples you need are a cup of long grain rice, two cups of chicken broth (if you only have one can, which is just over 14 ounces, you could always use water for the last two ounces ... but I always use all broth - also, I always use low sodium broth from the store. I'm sure if you made your own that would taste super awesome, but who has time for that? At any rate, I figure I can always add salt later if I need to, but regular sodium broth might be too salty to begin with, at least for me.), Tabasco, and salt.

Really, I'm not kidding when I say prep before you get started. There are a lot of things to chop up:

Chop the two (or one and two halves) small peppers with a good kitchen knife; mine looks like of like this. I like mine kind of large, but some people might prefer more of a dice. What's the difference you might ask? Read more here. I had a small pepper languishing in the fridge, so I chopped it up as well. Set aside in a bowl.

Rinse your knife (do this before you chop anything new, and your cutting board too), chop your onion to the same shape, or smaller if you prefer. Set aside in a bowl.

Slice 1/4 cup's worth of green onions. I make the slices pretty skinny, about a 1/16 - 1/8 inch. Set aside, or put in the fridge, because you won't use these until the very end.

Chop a clove of garlic (I use two, because I do love the garlic), and add it to the onion bowl.

Finally, chop your four slices of bacon. I do this by stacking two pieces of bacon on top of each other, slicing lengthwise down the center, then chopping 1/2 inch pieces. You'll see why the thick cut bacon is the best, when you are suffering at the cutting board with your skinny bacon. Learn from my experience.

Measure one cup of long grain rice. Measure two cups of chicken broth into a pourable container. Shake a tablespoon of Tabasco into the shot glass. I'm pretty sure a Tbs is about half a normal sized shot glass. That's what I always use. You can always add more later. Just a note if you think it's not enough: I find that the next day, the rice has soaked up more of the Tabasco, and it tastes quite a bit spicier. Be forewarned, wimpy spice people. Measure 1/2 tsp salt and set aside. I use sea salt in this recipe.

Finally, drain and rinse the beans in a colander.
I think you're ready to get cooking.

Cook your diced bacon in the pot over medium-high heat (7ish on the electric stove) until it's crisp. As you probably know if you've ever cooked bacon, it will produce its own cooking oil - or grease, as some might say. Watch it and stir it now and again so the bacon doesn't stick. When it's brown and crisp, take the pot off the heat and remove the bacon a paper towel on a plate to drain. Use a slotted spoon or something with holes to do this, because you want to keep the grease in the pot. If it seems like a ton of grease, you might want to pour some into a jar. I guess I usually have about one tablespoon, maybe one and a half, of grease in the bottom of the pot after I remove the bacon.

Put the pot back on the medium (6-7 electric) heat, and add the onion and garlic. Cook this for five minutes and stir it often - you do not want your onions / garlic to brown - they'll be shiny from the grease, and that will be awesome. After five minutes, make sure your salt, broth and Tabasco are in reaching distance, then stir in the rice. Cook this for two minutes and stir CONSTANTLY, just like with risotto.

After two minutes, add the salt, broth, and Tabasco. Stir, then bring this to a boil over high heat (8-9 electric). When it comes to a full boil, reduce the heat to low (1-2-3 electric). Cover the pot and simmer for 15 minutes. This is when your rice absorbs the broth.

After the 15 or so minutes, take off the lid, and add in the peppers, beans, and bacon. Now you see why such a large pot is so important. Stir everything to combine, and cook another five or so minutes, until your rice is tender. I find I usually let it cook on low maybe 10 to 15 minutes, because I like the peppers to soften up a bit too.

Take off the heat, and stir in the scallions you previously chopped. Holy goodness. This is SO good. One of my favorites, and really very simple work to create something so delicious. Enjoy. Preferably with a beer.

Hey, good news. The sun just came out. 


Granny's Sugar Cookies :: Simple, Humble, Perfect

The sugar cookie is a simple thing, there's not too much too it, and yet it is one of the most sweetly satisfying treats, when made right. When you want to make a sugar cookie right, Granny's recipe is the one, the only. This cookie is legendary in my family, my dad's very favorite. These cookies are also a great metaphor for my Granny, who died in early 2009 at 89 and a 1/2. 89 and a 1/2! We should all get such a life. Granny was one of the wisest, humble, loving people I have ever known. She lived her life with great simplicity and one of her sayings that I love, passed onto my dad and then onto me was "kill them with kindness." This is something I'm constantly trying to achieve - but I have many good models in my family for how it works. If you need to kill someone with kindness, you should bake them a batch of Granny's simple, humble, and perfect sugar cookies. Go ahead, see what happens. I bet it will be good.

Granny's Sugar Cookies 

Happily for you, this recipe requires no unusual kitchen equipment except a rolling pin and cookie cutters. If you don't have a rolling pin, you could use a large can, though that might drive you slowly insane. You could definitely use an clean, empty can as a cookie cutter, if you don't own any traditional cutters. You will need a cookie sheet, but I'm pretty sure most people over eighteen own at least one, for bagel bites if nothing else. You can mix this dough by hand, as I'm sure my Granny did for many years; however, a mixer will allow you to aerate the sugar and butter, which results in a far lighter, crisper cookie. 

This is a pantry staple recipe, so long as you have ever baked a thing in your life. If not, you're probably not a reader of food blogs, but if you are indeed reading this and planning it for your first baked good ever, get yourself to the grocery store. You will need unsalted butter. It's important to use unsalted butter in baking, unless you want a salty cookie - this could work in certain situations, but it doesn't here. You will also need all purpose flour, white sugar, a large egg (did you know that all baking recipes use the large egg as a standard size? A recipe will call for a larger size, if its necessary. You will end up with a very different cookie if you use the wrong size egg. Maybe you always thought you were a terrible baker, but as it turns out, you've just been using medium eggs. Voila, begin anew.), milk (whole vs 1% vs skim makes a difference - I think skim is the milk of the devil, and I drink 1%, which usually ends up in my recipes, but I had some half and half in my fridge when I made these last week, and I used that with some 1% milk, and I was quite pleased. See what you like best.), baking powder (not soda!), and salt. I just learned something about salt from a friend: table salt, because it is such a small grain, is more soluble and incorporates more quickly and thus is less in your face, while kosher or sea salt is a larger flake and doesn't dissolve well, which makes for noticeable salty pockets in a cookie: this can be effective, as I found it to be in a citrus shortbread, but in this sugar cookie, I'd go with table salt. Cooks Illustrated can tell you even more about salt, should you be on the tip of your seat reading about the stuff. Actually, you could probably also read Mark Kurlansky's Salt, though I haven't read it. Someone read it and let me know if I should. Oh, and you need powdered sugar, but we'll get to that later.

Okay, sugar cookies! 

This recipe is weird about its butter. 2/3 cup. Why is that weird? How many of you cut your butter based on the numbers on the wrapper? Ever noticed that 1/3 cup of butter is 5 and 1/3 tablespoon? Bringing it back to 4th grade fractions, you can't get 2/3 cup out of one stick of butter. So you must use one stick of butter plus 2 and 2/3 Tablespoons of butter from another stick. Or at this point, you could decide to double the recipe, which would make your butter halving much easier. 

2/3 cup butter + 3/4 cup white sugar go into a mixing bowl. Beat it, beat it, and beat it some more, on a medium or medium high speed. Start on a low medium speed though, otherwise you will have butter bits all over your kitchen. If you're familiar with how long you aerate butter and sugar for a cake, think that way, and if not, just mix until it almost looks whipped. 

Beat one large egg, one teaspoon of vanilla, and four teaspoons of milk into this mixture. Think light and fluffy thoughts. 

In another bowl, combine your dry ingredients. Pro-tip: whip your flour in its container or bag with a whisk to lighten it up before measuring. When you dip your cup into the flour, don't pack it in, and level it off with the back side of a knife, you want the light touch with flour measurements, otherwise you're going to get a dense, overly floury cookie. Add two cups flour, one and a half (1&1/2) teaspoons baking powder, and 1/4 teaspoon salt. Whisk these together, then add to the rest of the ingredients. 

Incorporate the flour mixture with a spoon, then once it's slightly blended, use your mixer on low-medium to combine the wet and dry completely, or just finish this step all by hand. Don't over mix here, but make sure all the flour is mixed in. I usually mix for about fifteen seconds, turn off the mixer, use a spatula to turn over the dough and get all the flour off the bottom of the bowl, then mix it for another fifteen or so seconds. 

Dough is done and delicious, but soft! Stick it in the fridge for about an hour, covered, to stiffen up a bit. It will still be sticky when you take it out, but you'll remedy that. 

In the meantime, prep your work area. Clean a counter top space, or tape down parchment or lay out foil, whatever works for you. Mix equal parts flour and powdered sugar in a bowl. I never measure this, I just eyeball it. Sprinkle a lot of this mixture over your workspace, and make sure it covers the surface completely - nothing will annoy you more than rolling out your dough and cutting your cookies just to find you can't lift them off the work surface onto the cookie sheet, because they are stuck to the counter. 

When your dough is chilled, scrape a hunk of it out of the bowl, put it on your work surface, lightly pat the flour / sugar mixture all over it, then roll it out into a thin (maybe 1/4" thick or even slightly thinner if you can) circle-ish shape. Cut out your shapes. Use a spatula to get under your cookie and move it to the cookie sheet. Sometimes this is challenging. Deep breaths. It might help you to pull the unused dough off the shapes first.

Put your cookie sheet in a 375 degree oven for 6-8 minutes. I always find they take eight minutes, if you want that light brown edge, which you most definitely do. Remove them to a cooling rack with a very skinny metal spatula.

Enjoy. They are amazing. Thanks Granny, for helping people like me everywhere kill with the kindness of perfectly simple sugar cookies. You were a great lady, thanks for leaving stuff like this to help us keep your spirit alive.