Saturday, February 12, 2011

Delta Style Cooking

The Mississippi Delta region is where I grew up, and my cooking, be it an everyday dinner or competition BBQ, reflects that in the flavors and foods I use.  To give you an idea of the region, it is generally given this geographical - Starting at Memphis down to New Orleans, bordered by the Yazoo River on the Mississippi side and stretching a few miles on the other side through Arkansas and Louisiana.  Cuisuine from this area has picked up influences from the surrounding zones and morphed into a certain flavor profile that is unique in its own right.  Food is very well seasoned, but not necessarily hot or spicy.  Fresh products are used in everything, reflecting the lack of reliance of the residents on the land.  The food should express itself though the entire palate, not just having a singular note. Everything is made from scratch, and mealtimes are a celebration, not a duty.

Delta food is not known for a single item, but rather for its abilty to absorb the styles of nearby areas and morph into a slightly different style.  It is more than a "kissing cousin" to cajun food (not the super spicy stuff that people assume is cajun, but the homespun dining of the everyday person of Louisiana).  Much of the cooking comes from time consuming recipes utilizing inferior cuts of meats.  The Cajun "trinity" (celery, onions and peppers cooked down as a flavoring base) is predominate in most stew types, but the use of a roux is not.

One item the Delta is know for is tamales.  Yes, tamales.  Made in much the same way as their Mexican cousins, the difference in a Delta tamale is in a few touches.  It is almost always made with a pork filling.  True Delta tamales are always wrapped in butcher paper as opposed to corn husks.  Delta tamales are typically stewed in a very seasoned broth made with tomatoes and a stock.  One of the best things about driving through the Delta is finding the tamale stands or shops and stopping in for a snack (look for the boiled peanut stands, there is usually a tamale stop nearby!).  Typically, you are given saltines to eat with the tamales- I still don't get why, but just go with it. 

Items such as Red Beans and Rice are another Delta specialty.  Yes, they are a New Orleans dish, but they are also a Delta item with a few changes.  Red Beans and Rice can be anything as simple as just that- some red beans cooked and served with rice to a more satisfying stew with sausages, ham and the like.  Traditional New Orleans RBR was made on Mondays, which also was "wash day."  Ladies would put on the beans to cook for the afternoon while they washed clothes.  It is still a Monday special at many restaurants in New Orleans and throughout the Delta.

We served a great RBR at our restaurant years ago. Here is a modified recipe for the home:


Cooking down smoked sausage
 1 lb dried SMALL RED BEANS- don't use kidney beans or pinto beans or anything else, this has to be SMALL RED BEANS.  It will say so on the package- SMALL RED BEANS.
1 TBL canola oil
1/2 cup diced celery,
1 cup each julienne onions and julienne peppers (green or red your choice, or mix)
1 TBL minced garlic
1 gallon chicken stock
1/2 cup diced ham (tasso ham is awesome, but it makes it more of a cajun style)
1 lb smoked sausage, cut into 1/2 moons (andouille if you are going for the cajun style)
1 TBL basil flakes
3 bay leaves
1 tsp coarse ground black pepper
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp cayenne
1 tsp hot sauce (we like Louisiana brand as it's not that hot but it adds a good flavor)
White rice- you need about 2 cups cooked
1/2 a bunch of green onions, diced.

"trinity" cooking with garlic
 Optional- some more sausage, cut into 3 inch links and butterflied (one link per person)

Soak beans overnight or cover with water and bring to a light boil for 1 hour.  Drain.  Set aside.
In a skillet, add oil and cook sausage. Getting a sear on it brings out the flavor.  Remove sausage, but leave the oils in skillet.  Add celery, onion, peppers and cook until softened.  Add garlic and continue cooking until garlic is golden- about 2 minutes.  Place all ingredients in large stock pot and put on medium heat until is comes to a light boil, then reduce to a strong simmer.

Now, go wash clothes because you have about 3 hours to kill.  Occasionally stir the pot.

As it cooks you will notice it becoming more stew-like.  It is done when the beans are very soft and it looks melded together.  If it becomes too thick, add some more water or stock. If it's too thin, use a spoon and mash some of the beans against the side of the pot and stir- I do this always as it really helps flavor the stew.

About 30 minutes before serving taste for seasonings.  Feel free to add salt, pepper, spices, whatever you think it needs- it's your dinner at this point, not mine, so don't let a recipe stand in your way!

Cook your rice.  I take the sausage links and sear them to the point of getting them black at this point- the little char adds an extra flavor componant. 

A bowl of Delta-Style Red Beans and Rice
 To serve- spoon red beans in a bowl, then top with a few spoonfulls of rice.  Sprinkle green onions on top of rice, and place a sausage on top.  Awesomely easy, satisfying dinner- right from the Delta.  Enjoy!


  1. Now that truly looks very good. I was hoping you would also post a tamale recipe. I remember seeing them on the Alton Brown Feasting on Asphalt series.

  2. Thanks Sylvie, Tamales are another post next time I make them. I don't know why tamales are such a signature dish in the Delta, but they are just as much as the River and cotton. There is a restaurant in Greeneville, MS that sells tamales (it's a steakhouse, weird huh) and they put them in #10 cans for you to take home. Awesome.

  3. From Vicksburg here my wife is a teacher and she has me fix the red beans and rice by far your is the tastiest I've come across either in person or online, and does tamales are good I hope you do post a recipe soon would love to see what that one taste likes, love the write up about the Delta cooking and trying to explain it to folks, keep up the good job

    Andrew from vicksburg, MS