“Red rice goes back to the old, old days – the days before me, my momma and her,” writes Emily Meggett in her new book “Gullah Geechee Home Cooking: Recipes From the Matriarch of Edisto Island.” Photographs by Clay Williams illustrate the cooking life of Meggett, the 89-year-old matriarch of the Gullah community on Edisto Island, S.C.
The Gullah Geechee people of the Sea Islands of South Carolina and Georgia have a history that spans centuries – to a time well before the establishment of the U.S. They came over as enslaved members of West African tribes and eventually set up residence in the Lowcountry. Because of their physical separation from the rest of the South and an almost instinctual commitment to preserving their roots, their culture lives on, and indeed thrives, in people like Meggett.
Meggett has lived in the Gullah community for her entire life and counts 50 grandchildren and great-grandchildren among her heirs. For the first time, her recipes are now documented in a book that’s part history and part living culture. One of the grains West Africans brought to the Americas was rice, and along with it, they brought their know-how for cultivating it. Rice thrived in the Lowcountry thanks to their skills and remains today a staple of their cuisine.
“Red rice is a beautiful, earthy one-pot rice dish that borrows from the traditions of my African ancestors. Sometimes called Charleston red rice, red rice really owes a great debt to the enslaved Africans who brought their knowledge of rice and vegetable farming to the United States,” Meggett writes. It may be a cousin of jambalaya and jollof, but red rice is its own dish.
“Here on Edisto, Wednesdays and Fridays were seafood days. We had shrimp or fish with red rice, so it was something to look forward to. Back in the day, you didn’t use tomato paste and sauce, you used the tomatoes you’d planted in your garden. The tomato paste works just as good, though, and Gullah Geechee red rice is one of the best dishes you can enjoy,” Meggett says.
She notes that cooking red rice takes more skill than your average pot of rice. Tomatoes contain different levels of moisture, and if the ratio of liquid to rice is off, “it will come out like mush. If you have too much rice, you can add water, but the texture will be uneven. Early in the cooking, you want to use your spoon to feel the weight of the rice, and make sure it’s cooking evenly.”
The finished rice should glisten red, each grain slicked with a touch of pork fat, but not be clumpy. Still, Meggett is encouraging: “Don’t let this dish intimidate you – with well-seasoned vegetables, slices of sausage and perfectly cooked rice, you’ve just about got yourself a meal. Oh, and when you put some fatback in there? Now you’re talking.”
To make this dish without meat, use soy sausage or omit the bacon or salt pork and sausage and saute the vegetables in 3 tablespoons of olive oil. You will need to adjust the seasoning to taste. Want to skip the onion? Use more celery or bell pepper in its place. I haven’t tried this with brown rice, but if you want to, consider letting the brown rice soak in water for a few hours before cooking to help speed the cooking process along.
3 thick slices bacon or about 3 ounces salt pork, cut into ½-inch pieces
1 medium yellow onion (8 ounces), diced
1 bell pepper (any color), diced
2 stalks celery, chopped (about ½ cup)
8 ounces smoked pork sausage, sliced into ¼-inch-thick rounds or chopped into bite-size pieces
6 tablespoons tomato paste
2½ cups water
½ teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
¾ teaspoon Nature’s Seasons, sazon, powdered adobo or other similar salted seasoning blend, plus more to taste
1 cup (about 6 ounces) long-grain rice, unrinsed
In a large pot over medium heat, fry the bacon or salt pork, stirring occasionally, until browned on all sides, about 5 minutes. Add the onion, bell pepper and celery, and cook, stirring occasionally, until tender, 5 to 7 minutes. Stir in the sausage, and cook until lightly browned, stirring as needed, about 5 minutes. Stir in the tomato paste, letting it coat all the vegetables and meat, and then add the water. Increase the heat to high and bring to a boil.
Stir in the crushed red pepper flakes and Nature’s Seasons or other spice mix. Taste, and adjust the seasoning, if needed. Add the rice and cook, stirring frequently to keep the rice from sticking, until most of the liquid has been absorbed and the rice is tender, about 10 minutes.
Decrease the heat to the lowest possible setting, cover the pot and cook, stirring occasionally, with a wooden spatula or fork to help fluff the grains, for 25 to 30 minutes, or until the rice has absorbed all the liquid and is tender and fluffy. Remove from the heat and serve family-style.
Yield: 4 servings
Storage notes: Refrigerate for up to four days.
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