by Katie Moses
When the only remnants of Mardi Gras are plastic beads hanging from the oaks along St. Charles Avenue, Louisiana still draws people from around the world for the lively music and incredible food. Discover the secret to the depth of flavor in Cajun and Creole cuisine and recreate a classic Louisiana dish, red beans and rice, in your own kitchen.
Imagine early afternoon in southern Louisiana. The sweltering heat is held at bay by the air conditioner running on full blast; your grandmother begins to quarter onions, seed bell peppers, and break celery stalks. This “southern symphony” begins to swell with the sudden whir of an old food processor finely mincing onion, celery, and green bell pepper, while a layer of oil in a large pot warms on the stovetop. The sizzle crescendos in the Cajun kitchen as she adds the onions, then celery and bell pepper to the hot oil, and their aromatics waft through the 1960s ranch-style house..
Growing up in my grandmother’s home in the heart of Cajun country, this is how homemade dinners began. No matter if it’s red beans, gumbo, or jambalaya, every Cajun dinner starts with a little oil in a heavy-bottomed pot and the Cajun holy trinity – onion, celery, and green bell pepper.
History of the Trinity
The influences of French and Spanish occupation of Cajun and Creole country adds to the “southern symphony” with echoes of Catholic church bells in every town. Naming the aromatic trio the Cajun holy trinity in this predominantly Catholic region reflects how food traditions are as fundamental to the identity of the residents of south Louisiana as their faith.
Aromatic vegetables sautéed in oil as the foundation of flavor in Cajun and Creole cuisine is mirrored in the many cultures that have influenced its traditions: the mirepoix in France; the sofrito in Spanish-speaking countries; and the sacred flavor trinities of West African cuisines. The mirepoix combines onions, celery, and carrots. The slightly sweet carrot adds a different flavor profile compared to the bitter notes of the green bell pepper. A typical sofrito in Spain mixes tomatoes, bell peppers, onions, and garlic, while the Cuban sofrito is the Cajun trinity with garlic added as an official fourth ingredient in the seasoning mix. West African dishes typically begin with tomatoes, onions, and chili peppers. While West African and Spanish cuisines influenced both the Cajun and Creole cuisines, the tomatoes in Creole gumbo and not Cajun gumbo illustrates the stronger influence of West African and Spanish on the Creoles in New Orleans than the Cajuns in Acadiana.
A Kitchen Staple
Louisiana grocers make the lives of Cajun cooks easier by always stocking the produce section with celery, green bell peppers, onions, and garlic, and by making the ingredients available in many formats. For those who seek even more convenience, cooks can get Guidry’s Fresh Cuts Creole Seasoning a container of finely chopped yellow onions, green bell pepper, celery, green onions, parsley, and garlic. Every freezer section has the holy trinity pre-chopped and frozen at the peak of freshness if you’re willing to have your oil pop a little extra from the moisture of the frozen vegetables.
How to Prep the Trinity
If you prefer to prep your own vegetables, the perfect ratio of aromatics is 2 parts yellow onion:1 part celery:1 part green bell pepper. Every Cajun cookbook will tell you to pair the trinity with garlic for extra depth of flavor. The goal is to mince the onion, celery, and bell pepper so finely that they almost disintegrate while cooking. If you’re far from southern grocery stores that offer the Cajun trinity pre-chopped, you can follow the steps below to hand chop or emulate my grandmother and save time using a food processor. Note: a key to preparing the trinity is to keep the onion separate from the celery and bell pepper; you don’t want to overcrowd the onions, so you always add the celery and bell pepper later.
Supplies needed are a large stable cutting board, two prep bowls, and a sharp non-serrated knife.
- Peel and cut the onion into a small dice, a ¼ inch square cut, and place in a prep bowl.
- If using garlic, peel and crush or finely mince and mix with the diced onions.
- Cut off the stemmed top of the green bell pepper to remove seeds and create a flat surface. Slice pepper into planks and then cut into a small dice. Place in a separate prep bowl.
- Chop off white base of celery then halve stalks. Bunch together the halved stalks with your free hand and cut into a small dice. Mix celery with the bell pepper in the prep bowl.
Supplies needed are a food processor with chopping blade and two prep bowls.
- If using garlic, peel and add 4 cloves into the processor first, pulsing until finely chopped. Peel and quarter the onion, then add to the processor and pulse until finely chopped. Remove the onion and garlic mixture and place in a separate prep bowl.
- Cut off the stemmed top of the green bell pepper, remove seeds and quarter. Remove white base of celery then roughly chop stalks into 3-inch pieces. Add to the food processor and pulse until finely chopped. Then, place in a prep bowl separate from onion and garlic.
Among those who live far from the shade of the magnolias, my home state of Louisiana is known for three things – Mardi Gras, music, and good food. When the only remnants of Mardi Gras are plastic beads hanging from the oaks along St. Charles Avenue, Louisiana still draws people from around the world for the lively music and incredible food. While those outside the kitchen may assume the rich depth of flavor in Cajun and Creole cuisine is thanks to a heavy hand with butter and cayenne pepper, the soul of the unique flavor is the holy trinity. The recipe below blends Cajun, Spanish, and African flavors with a few culinary shortcuts to showcase the holy trinity in a delicious pot of the Louisiana Cajun classic: red beans and rice.
Good Friday Red Beans and Rice
This classic south-Louisiana dish saves on time without cutting back on flavor by using canned beans and chipotle peppers in adobo instead of ham hock or tasso. This recipe is perfect for a Lenten Friday or a vegetarian potluck.
4 cloves garlic, peeled
2 medium yellow onions, peeled (2 cups chopped)*
3 ribs of celery (1 cup chopped)*
1 green bell pepper (1 cup chopped)*
1 tbsp olive or vegetable oil
4 (15-oz) cans dark red kidney beans, drained and rinsed with hot water**
1½ tsp Better than Bouillon Vegetable (or No Chicken) Base***
3 bay leaves
½ tsp cayenne pepper
½ tsp freshly ground black pepper
1 chipotle pepper canned in adobo, chopped
2-4 cups of water (just enough to cover the beans)
Optional: 2 tsp dried thyme and 2 tsp ground oregano
1 lb long grain brown (or white) rice, prepared according to package directions
- Prep then combine the finely minced onion and garlic in a bowl, and celery and green bell pepper in a separate bowl.
- Heat a large heavy-bottom pot over medium heat and add 2 tablespoons of olive or vegetable oil.
- Add the onion and garlic to oil and sauté until onions are translucent and garlic is golden.
- Add the green bell pepper and celery to the pot and sauté until soft. Be careful not to let the garlic burn.
- Add the remaining ingredients to the pot: the kidney beans, bouillon base, bay leaves, cayenne pepper, black pepper, adobo chipotle pepper, and enough water to cover it all by an inch.
- Stir until all ingredients are well combined then simmer, covered, over low to medium-low heat for at least 45 minutes. Check and stir occasionally, adding water as needed if beans begin to stick.
- The red beans are ready when most of them have begun to fall apart.
- Serve on top of an equal portion of rice.
Balance your plate by pairing this fiber- and protein-rich dish with collard greens, stewed okra and tomatoes, or a simple cucumber and onion salad.
*4 cups pre-chopped frozen trinity
**1 lb dry kidney beans, soaked overnight, drained, and brought to a boil then simmer in lightly salted water with bay leaves.
***1½ tsp favorite bouillon/stock base. Alternatively, replace water with your favorite vegetable stock or chicken broth (if not vegetarian).
Southern Serving Suggestion:
If you’re left pining to recreate the Louisiana restaurant experience, turn up a Louis Armstrong record, pour yourself an iced tea,and top those red beans with some thin-sliced, pan-fried andouille sausage. Laissez les bon temp roulez!
Katie Moses is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist who has worked as a culinary nutrition educator for over 5 years. Starting life with a unique culinary upbringing in the heart of Cajun country with Sicilian, Syrian, and French grandparents, she finds ways to adapt traditional dishes to fit current nutrition recommendations Katie is currently enrolled in the Master’s Degree Program in Nutrition Interventions, Communication, and Behavior Change at the Friedman School. Connect with her at linkedin.com/in/mkatiemoses.