The Tastiest Beans and Rice–Jamaican Style!

I love beans and rice.

Which makes sense–when I was growing up, I loved rice. I begged Mom to make rice all the time, and even though all she knew how to make was Minute Rice, I still loved the stuff. Now, of course, I eat rice all the time, and not that weird instant business, but real rice.

And I grew up eating dried beans all the time, because they were cheap and filling and tasted great. Cooked southern style with a ham hock or jowl bacon or a ham bone or whatever, beans were the go-to meal when Mom needed to stretch the food budget. In fact, the year that Dad was laid off from Carbide, we ate beans two or three times a week. Which was fine, because they tasted great. We ate a lot of pinto beans, but also navy beans, big lima beans, baby lima beans and in our chili, we had deep red kidney beans with tough skins and velvety insides that melted on your tongue like cream.

When I finally tasted Cajun-Creole red beans and rice in my college years, I fell totally in love. Two of my favorite foods mixed together in a bowl, with Andouille sausage, garlic, onions, sweet peppers and whoo-boy–chilies to jazz it all up and make it ready for the palate. For years red beans and rice was my favorite meal, but then I picked up a copy of a great cookbook on sale here in Athens years and years ago that changed my life. It changed the way I grilled forever, and it has helped shape my continued love of beans and rice.

It was Helen Willinsky’s Jerk: Barbeque From Jamaica, and I urge you to get it and cook from it. It is out of print, but you can get copies of it used all over the place including on Amazon. It isn’t a pretty cookbook with lots of photographs–the only illustrations are some woodcut bits at the beginning of each chapter–but it doesn’t matter. Willinsky’s words carry the day, and describe food that even though I had never eaten it in my life, made my mouth water. I nabbed it and took it home and have been cooking with it ever since–my copy is battered with dog-eared pages, and mysterious stains on the cover and smeared across recipes that even now, years after the accidents that marked them, smell delectably spicy. (Jerk marinade lasts a long time, apparently.)

Now, here is the deal–if you want, you can get the updated version of the book: Jerk Jamaican Style also by Willinsky, which has a few more recipes, and lots and lots of really great photographs of the food and people of Jamaica, and for folks who need visuals, it is a great alternative. The truth is, I have both books–I bought the new one to review and ended up keeping them both because I just loved them so much. But I think I like the funky original one better, because it is a testament to Willinsky’s vivid writing that it captured my attention in the dimly-lit corner of a little bookstore in Athens, Ohio, and caused me to take it home and start cooking a cuisine I knew nothing about and had never tasted. Besides, if you get a little greasy bit of marinade on it, you won’t feel as bad as if you messed up a pretty book.

Or at least, I wouldn’t.

Now, I have been cooking jerk and its accompaniments for so long, I don’t use Willinksy’s recipes as written at all–I have my own variations, which is the way of all cooks. I make jerk my way, and it is a very tasty way. I also make Jamaican red beans and rice my way–or as they say in Jamaica, “peas and rice” and I like my way a lot better than Willinsky’s. It may not be exactly authentic, but it sure tastes amazing, and for that alone, I think it is worth sharing the recipe.

Now, there is pork in this recipe. A ham hock and some bacon fat. But, if you are a vegetarian or a Muslim you can leave that out and still get a great tasting bean and rice experience. You just have to make these substitutions. For the ham hock, if you are a vegetarian add about a tablespoon of Smoked Spanish Paprika. Add it after you have browned the onions, peppers and garlic, and stir it for a minute or two in the hot fat.

If you are a Muslim, use a smoked turkey wing, which you can find at a lot of grocery stores these days. (You can also do that if you are worried about lots of animal fat–the turkey wing is way lower in fat than the ham hock and is almost as tasty.) And for the bacon fat, you can substitute butter or olive oil–whichever floats your boat, whether you are a vegetarian or a Muslim or you just cannot abide the idea of cooking with bacon fat for whatever reason.

Now, lets talk about the red beans. I am not using big red kidney beans in this recipe, but instead am cooking small red beans. I can get them at Kroger easily, as well as from the Whole Foods. You can also get them cheap at Mexican, Caribbean or Latin-American grocery stores, or you can order them online. (The best place to get them are the Mexican, Caribbean or Latin American stores–they have the best prices.)

Small red beans have a softer texture than kidney beans and don’t taste the same. They taste–beanier–I guess you would say. Meatier or something. Kidney beans have a sweetness to them that the small red beans lack, and I think that is a good thing. I prefer kidney beans in chili or rajma dal. For any red beans and rice application, I am all about the small red beans.

I cook this recipe in my pressure cooker, but you can just cook it in a regular pot on your stove all day. It just takes longer, and I’m impatient is all. But you don’t have to be–if you cook the beans all day, you get the added benefit of your whole house smelling delicious for a day or two afterwords. But if you are a fast-paced personality or you don’t have all day to cook, invest in a pressure cooker and be amazed at how fast you can make dried beans, dals, curries, soups, stews and pot roasts that taste exactly as if you spent the entire day on them, all with excellent textures to boot. (Pressure cooking makes beans even velvetier and meat amazingly tender.)

There is coconut milk in this recipe, and you can use a variable amount in it. I prefer the 19 ounce cans of Mae Ploy coconut milk in this recipe, and you can use one or two cans of it in your beans. (Don’t worry about the price listed on this link–it is cheaper other places–I just put this link here so you could get a good look at the can. It is about 99 cents to a 1.25 per can at my local Asian market.) I usually use two cans, but I only had one this time around and so the beans ended up a little less rich, but still damned fine and tasty. They just lacked a little in the coconut flavor and Zak missed that, so next time, it will be two cans again.

Finally, the Jerk seasoning–I always make these beans to go with Jerk, so I add a tablespoon or two of my just made jerk rub to the pot. That is easy. But what if you aren’t making anything jerk when you make the beans.

Be not afraid, you can still have beans. Get yourself a jar of Walkerswood Jerk Seasoning paste and you just add a tablespoon or so of that to your pot of beans and go on with your bad self.

Oh, and while you are cooking, listen to one of my favorite Spearhead songs–Red Beans and Rice. It’s an awesome song that I am singing in my head right now as I type out the recipe.

Jamaican Style Red Beans and Rice

2 tablespoons bacon drippings plus1 tablespoon olive oil (or 3 tablespoons olive oil)
2 cups diced onions
1 cup diced red sweet bell pepper
8 large garlic cloves, peeled and mince
2 teaspoons dried thyme
1 teaspoon smoked Spanish paprika
freshly ground black pepper to taste or 1 tablespoon Aleppo pepper flakes
1 ham hock or 1 smoked turkey wing or 1 tablespoon smoked Spanish paprika
1 or 2 19 ounce cans Mae Ploy coconut milk
1 whole scotch bonnet pepper or habanero –optional
1 pound dried red beans, picked over, rinsed and drained
water as needed
1-3 tablespoons jerk rub, marinade or seasoning (the amount depends on how hot your seasoning is with Scotch Bonnet Pepper)
salt to taste
1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves
1 cup scallion tops, dark green parts only, thinly sliced
1 cup cilantro leaves, roughly chopped
cooked long grain rice–I used about six cups of it–measured -after- cooking


Heat bacon drippings and or olive oil over medium high heat in pressure cooker or regular pot. Add onions and sweet pepper, and cook, stirring, until the onions turn golden. Add the garlic, dried thyme, paprika and the black pepper or Aleppo pepper flakes, and continue to cook, stirring, until the onions turn brown, the peppers brown on the edges and the garlic turns golden. Add the ham hock and cook for a minute or two, turning the hock once or twice. Add the coconut milk, the optional chili pepper and the dried beans. Stir, and if necessary, add water to cover the beans with at least 2 inches of liquid above the top of the beans. (2 1/2″ to 3″ of water over the beans is better.)

Bring to a boil, cover up the pressure cooker and bring to full pressure. Turn down heat to low and cook for 40-45 minutes on high pressure. Quick release pressure, open the cooker and test the beans for doneness. The skins should split easily when you blow on them and the beans themselves should be soft and meltingly tender without falling apart when you touch them. (If you have no pressure cooker, cover beans loosely with lid, turn down heat and simmer the beans until they are done–which will take anywhere from three to five hours depending on how hot your stove is and how fresh the dried beans are. Stir now and again and add water as needed to keep the beans from sticking.)

Once you have determined that the beans are done, fish out the ham hock, add the jerk seasoning and turn the heat up on the stove. Leaving the pot uncovered, and stirring often, boil off the excess water. The sauce should reduce until it is thick and will cling to the back of a spoon without dripping off easily. Season to taste with salt and stir in the fresh thyme, scallion tops and cilantro leaves. Then, stir in the rice, until the sauce, rice and beans are completely combined.

Note–if you cook this in a pressure cooker, the ham hock may fall apart. If it does, you can fish it out in pieces. Take out the bones, skin and fat for sure, but if you want and if the meat is tender enough to shred easily, you can just stir the lean meat into the beans to make the dish even tastier. (This is the way it happened when I made the dish this time–and let me tell you, it made the beans so good that Dan said they were the best beans and rice he had ever had–and he has eaten a lot of beans and rice. You also have the added benefit of not wasting the meat.)


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  1. Barbara, could you make it in a slow cooker, crock pot?

    Comment by Mary Perrine — May 13, 2009 #

  2. Mary, if you make it in a slow cooker, when it the beans are done, you have to transfer them, with their cooking liquid to a pot on the stove and reduce the liquid by boiling it away, just as I instruct in the other methods. Crock pot cooked foods has very thin, watery broths, because they never get simmered down and reduced.

    But if you take the twenty minutes or so to reduce it on the stove, you will end up with a delicious finished product.

    Comment by Barbara — May 13, 2009 #

  3. Hello Barbara, my first time on your blog – found you through Nate ( I like your theme. Particularly for this post to stay on track, I enjoyed how you consider about differences of your reader. Also a lot of “if” to help with conditions. Informative!

    Comment by Spirited Miu Flavor — May 13, 2009 #

  4. I hope you will post a recipe for your jerk seasoning next! I’ve been experiencing a jerk craving and I would love to make it to go with your Jamaican beans and rice.

    Comment by Betsy — May 14, 2009 #

  5. I grew up eating Brazilian rice (rice, onions, garlic and sometimes a little tomato for color) and black beans. My brother and I still look at this as our comfort food. Like Betsy I would love to hear how you make your jerk rub. This bean recipe sounds intriguing with the coconut milk – never thought of adding coconut milk with beans. It should quite tasty.

    Comment by Maureen — May 14, 2009 #

  6. I’m Jamaican (well, half, but it’s the half that taught me to cook) and while your recipe looks great, I’ve never seen rice and peas gussied up quite so much, either by my family or in Jamaica. But regional differences must be accounted for, I suppose?

    My family’s recipe is simply rice cooked in the bean broth with coconut milk and water if needed, along with whole green onions (usually removed before serving, although I like them), garlic, S&P, thyme and allspice/pimento. The rice comes out a very attractive light purple colour.

    Comment by Victoria — May 15, 2009 #

  7. I could live on this! Any color beans, any color rice, any other flavors…
    But, this…. wonderful!

    Comment by Katie — May 15, 2009 #

  8. I put my favorite jerk rub/marinade recipe up–with a link to the more traditional version and another couple of variations I have used over the years.

    Victoria–this isn’t really authentic–I think I mentioned that I riffed off of the original recipe from Willinsky’s book–which is pretty much the way you describe.

    And I love that recipe–but I just wondered what would happen if I did this, and that and ooh, what would happen here? Although, the truth is–for the longest time I have been slipping some jerk rub into the beans and rice–like probably from about the third time I made it–and I have made it hundreds of times because folks just love the stuff so much (you are so lucky to be half Jamaican–eating all that good stuff all the time!). I remember first putting some in the pot by accident–I was going to stir the beans and rice and I had jerk rub on my my hand and it fell in the pot. And I thought–oops! Then I smelled it–and I thought-hey, I wonder if it would be good if I put a little more in–so I did, and after that time, it always went in with the beans.

    Its the way recipes evolve!

    Comment by Barbara — May 15, 2009 #

  9. Made these beans for the second time last night. Ooooo they’re good. I’m a bean fanatic and then you get me to put a can of coconut in there too? Genius! After dinner I overheard my husband exclaiming on the phone about my awesome beans, so I guess that clinches it. Best Beans Ever. Please please post an idli recipe once you and Preethi make friends!

    Comment by Kathie — July 17, 2009 #

  10. Thank you for this informative and visual read! Like you, I like to “mess” with my recipes…last night I decided to make a satay sauce with mushrooms…I nearly ate my fingers…I used my fingers to swoop up the peanuty goodness. At any rate, I have to say that this sounds wonderful. I live in Honduras though I am from Barbados…here and there we are beans and rice people. Here we use a lot of coconut milk in beans and meats…there we use lots of what we call “seasoning” to go into the rice and PEAS. So, this is a combination of my two worlds. Thank you for sharing.

    Comment by Susan — January 1, 2010 #

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