I’m boring when it comes to leftovers. (Strategy: Remove from refrigerator and eat. Alternatively, freeze, forget about, then find three months later and still eat.) My mom, on the other hand, makes magic with them — I can’t remember a single time that she tossed out leftovers in our kitchen, or a time that we didn’t ask for the rest of our dinner to be packed up when we went out to eat. Instead, I can see her poised with an open clamshell container in one hand and a metal spatula in the other, mouth pursed, surveying her wok and trying to figure out how to upcycle last night’s takeout into inevitably more delicious fried rice, or stir-fried noodles, or a simmering pot of soup. Some of her recipes are ones where she even swears by leftovers, like her mapo tofu, which she won’t make unless she’s stir-fried giant prawns the day before and has the fiery-red broth left over. (Don’t tell her I gave away her secret ingredient.)
So it was my mama’s leftovers ingenuity, not mine, that saved these “red beans” (in quotes, because I’ve taken some serious liberties with this Louisiana classic) and turned them from something pretty tasty when made from scratch into, surprisingly, something way better when made from leftovers. They were originally inspired by Duck’s Eatery, a funky kind-of-Southern kind-of-Asian little nook of a restaurant that does a revelatory take on red beans and rice with tender, smoked lamb breast (!) instead of smoked sausage, and an ingenious, fragrant cilantro-coconut rice. I was all jazzed to try to make it, but every time I tried an all-lamb version at home I found it just a tad too, well, lamb-y, perhaps because it wasn’t smoked. So it got tinkered with, and pondered, then shelved, and almost scrapped. And then, on a whim, my mom’s penchant for leftovers and a little roast meat in our fridge straightened it all out — as it turns out, a combination of just part lamb, with its fairly dominant flavors, and leftover roast turkey, with its occasionally too passive flavors, is perfect.
So this version gets its backbone from Duck’s Eatery, but it comes in a homier, Thanksgiving leftovers-y package. The rice I could eat plain, with its interplay between bright cilantro and sweet coconut — it turns out flavorful and just a tad sticky from the coconut milk, a soothingly creamy accompaniment for the spicy, salty red beans. And the red beans themselves are cooked down with celery, bell peppers, and onions, a little bit of lamb (but not too much) for an earthy richness, equal parts turkey for hearty comfort, and plenty of Cajun seasonings and chili powder for heat. It’s a slow-simmering, mostly hands-off (and wholly non-traditional, I apologize to the whole of Cajun cuisine) way to transform turkey into something totally different, and it reminds me happily of what my mom used to do with leftovers all the time.
Speaking of my mama’s amazing cooking, we’re heading home tomorrow for a ton of it (after which there will be no leftovers, thanks to moi) and some cozy family time. Hope you have happy days ahead of you this week, too. And thank you for being here — I’m so thankful to have you. Happy early Thanksgiving to anyone celebrating!
This is very loosely based on Louisiana red beans and rice, particularly a version I had at Duck's Eatery with smoked lamb breast and a fantastic coconut rice. We always have lamb and turkey on our Thanksgiving table, so this version morphed into the perfect opportunity to use up any leftovers from our table. It will work with all leftover turkey if that’s the main protein taking up real estate in your fridge, but I did like using about half of another kind of meat to add a bit of flavor and balance. I also think a good amount of smoked sausage would be perfect here to bring this closer to a traditional red beans and rice (or perhaps a drop or two of liquid smoke, if you have it!)
- for the red beans:
- 1/2 lb dried red beans, rinsed and sorted over
- 1 tbsp oil
- 1 cup diced sweet onion (about 1 medium onion)
- 1/2 cup diced green bell pepper (about 1 pepper)
- 1/2 cup diced celery (about 1 rib)
- 1 tbsp minced garlic (about 2-3 cloves)
- salt and pepper, to taste
- 2 bay leaves
- 1 tsp minced fresh thyme leaves
- 1-2 tbsp chili powder (if you choose to use smoked sausage, I would decrease this or omit it altogether, for a more traditional flavor)
- 1 tsp smoked paprika
- 1/2 tsp cumin
- 1/4 tsp cayenne
- 1/2 tsp crushed red chili flakes (optional)
- 5 cups chicken stock (or combination of chicken stock and water, if you'd like it less salty)
- 1 lb leftover Thanksgiving meat, roasted or, even better, smoked (I used a mixture of lamb shank and turkey; for a more traditional flavor, use 1/2 lb smoked sausage and 1/2 lb leftover roasted meat)
- for the rice:
- 1 1/2 cups short grain rice* (see Notes)
- 3/4 cup full-fat coconut milk (about half a 13.5 oz can)
- 1 cup water
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 1/4 cup chopped cilantro
- 1 tsp lime juice
- Place the beans in a large bowl or pot and cover with water by 2 inches. Let soak for 8 hours or overnight. Drain and set aside. (Note: Alternatively, if you forget to soak the beans a day ahead, simple bring a pot of water to boil, then pour over the beans and let sit for 1 hour.)
- In a large pot, heat the oil over medium-high heat. Add the onions, bell pepper, celery, and garlic, season with salt and pepper, and cook, stirring, until softened, about 3-5 minutes. If using smoked sausage or uncooked meat, add the bay leaves, thyme, and meat to the pot, then cook, stirring, until sausage is browned.
- Next, add the bay leaves, thyme, roast meat, beans, chicken stock, and spices. Stir well, and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer, uncovered, stirring occasionally, for about an hour, or until beans are just beginning to soften.
- Add the leftover roast meat to the pot, then simmer for an additional hour. When beans are tender and creamy and meat is falling off the bones or shreds easily, the red beans are done. Remove the bay leaves and any bones from the meat. If needed, chop the meat roughly or shred into small pieces and add it back to the pot. If you want, you can mash about 1/4 of the beans against the side of the pot to give the stew a creamy consistency. Adjust salt, pepper, and spice levels to taste.
- For the rice: Rinse rice under cold water until the water is no longer cloudy. Add coconut milk, water, and salt and stir to combine. If you're using a rice steamer, cook according to the manufacturer's instructions.
- If you're using a saucepan, bring liquid to a boil over medium-high heat. Reduce the heat to low, cover and cook, undisturbed, until rice is tender, about 20 minutes.
- Fluff with a fork and stir in cilantro and lime juice. Serve with red beans over top.
I used short grain rice because that’s what I usually have on hand (and what, if I remember correctly, they used at Ducks). Coconut-cilantro rice generally uses long grain, and you should feel free to use that if that’s what you prefer! If you opt for long grain, increase the coconut milk to 1 cup and the water to 1 1/4 cup.
This might also be a chance to use any vegetables you might have left after Thanksgiving -- in one version I added a few bunches of chopped kale in the last 30 minutes or so and found it a welcome addition. This is full of room for variation. But I’ll stop there, before I mangle this Louisiana tradition any further.