A lot of traditional Southern dishes can trace their roots back to slave cooking. Dirty rice is one of those dishes. It’s a popular dish that gets its name from the ground beef and finely chopped chicken livers included in the dish, hence giving the rice its “dirty” color.
One of the weekly standby dishes easily found in Louisiana cooking is dirty rice. A boxed version located on the grocery shelves offers a popular version of the dish, “Just add ground meat” and you have a great family meal. While there is nothing grand about the history of the dish, today’s recipes for are a far cry from its origins.
What is the origin of dirty rice?
Wait, did I say chicken livers? Yep. During slave days, the best parts of the chicken fed the plantation owners. Slaves were left with the less desirable parts – the innards. Combine it with rice, which was cheap and plentiful, and you’ve got a meal substantial enough to feed a family.
Cajuns later adopted dirty rice for the same reason. Cajuns can trace their familial roots back to exiles from Eastern Canada who later settled as tenant farmers in the swamps of Louisiana. They weren’t especially rich, hence the need for poor man’s meals made with grains and cheap cuts of meat. You will find newer versions of this recipe that exclude chicken livers altogether.
Dirty rice is a traditional Cajun preparation, and it happens to be one of the best uses for giblets ever — especially to those who think they hate eating them. What makes the rice “dirty” is ground up gizzards and minced liver, or chopped almost into a purée.
This dirty rice recipe is really delicious. Spicy, meaty, and richly flavored. It is a perfect side dish, or a light supper on its own.
How to remove the strong flavor of liver
If you’ve ever eaten wild game, such as venison, it has a different flavor than say, a steak you bought from the supermarket. It’s gamey, which is a bit tart, earthy and slightly metallic tasting. It can be off-putting if you’re not used to the taste. Liver, in its natural state, has a gamey flavor.
One technique you can use to remove the gamey flavor from chicken liver is to soak it in milk for several hours. Milk has a way of neutralizing the metallic taste in the meat.
Dirty rice was a poor family’s cooking. While the slaughtered chicken went into the stew pot up in the plantation house, the slaves or the tenant farmers were left with the chicken guts, even the chicken feet. The Louisiana plantations planted rice in the bayou where it grew plentiful and was cheap for the locals.
The original dirty rice was cooked chicken guts, the gizzard, heart, and kidneys, cooked in a pan. Afterward, the cooked organ meats were chopped fine while the rice cooked in added water in the same pan. The two ingredients were seasoned with salt and pepper before serving. It tastes good but the appeal loses some of its luster when considering what was being served in the better houses.
For the poor of Louisiana, Black, White and Cajun, dirty rice was a filling staple dish. The dish required local ingredients only and provided stomach filling satisfaction. As a family gained more wherewithal, they kept dirty rice but added more ingredients. Andouille sausage was ground, pig stomachs and spices, yet, cheaper than cuts of pork but more expensive than chicken guts. The sausage was added to the pot of rice. Vegetables came and went as they became available and then disappeared with the seasons.
Dirty rice is presented as “authentic Louisiana” cooking, a dish that every visitor to the state should seek out and savor. For tourist dollars, one can taste the echo of poverty. While sampling the food, everyone should also appreciate the ingenuity and skills of these poor communities that turned the least desirable ingredients into a specialty.
Just as an aside, after swapping out the organ meats for sausage, chicken meat and vegetables, the dish is called jambalaya. Add some chili powder for a kick if you want.
Dirty rice has not changed. Organ meats are still the least expensive items in the meat case. Ground beef and ground chicken are more expensive but adding more rice to the dish stretches out how many mouths one dish can feed, so penny-pinchers can still indulge. Of course, one can sauté vegetables and fold them in, or add hot sauce for an added flavor burst. The dish continues to be trash cooking at its finest, perfect for wilting greens and forgotten items in the back of the refrigerator that are still usable if cooked.
It’s simple food, but like so many of the beloved Creole and Cajun dishes, it’s not that simple. There are roughly as many variations of dirty rice as there are people who make this Louisiana staple recipe. It might seem confusing at first, but this is actually one of the great things about it. You can stick to a recipe you and your family love, or you can improvise, using ingredients you have on hand, and turn out something new every time you make it.
Today, it’s just as common to find dirty rice made with ground beef or pork instead of offal meats like liver and gizzards, but the preparation and the flavor are much the same.
What kind of rice is used in dirty rice?
A standard long- or medium-grain white rice is the most common type used for dirty rice, but you can make it with any kind of rice you may have. A lot of people love brown rice best. Different rices will of course yield different final results. For example, jasmine rice will yield a more light and fluffy rice, whereas Arborio will give you a heartier texture.
What is served with dirty rice?
A lot of people like to have dirty rice as a side with fried chicken or fried pork chops. That is a great way to have it, but it’s a good side to serve with virtually anything. And it’s also perfect on its own as an entree dish, along with a side salad.
Is dirty rice the same thing as Cajun rice?
In Louisiana, whether it’s called dirty rice, Cajun rice or rice dressing, it’s all the same basic dish, with the small variations you tend to find with any dish depending on who’s cooking it. Our guess is that “Cajun rice” is the result of restaurant owners fearing customers might find the name “dirty rice” off-putting.
What is the difference between New Orleans dirty rice and dishes with the same name in other parts of the world?
In many rice-dependent cultures, you’ll find dishes that are comparable to Louisiana’s dirty rice. The differences are just what you’d expect – in the other things that go into the dish, besides the rice.
In Jamaica, you may find a dirty rice that incorporates coconut milk and jerk-style spices.
Dirty rice in Mexico includes corn and tomato.
Is there a vegetarian version of dirty rice?
Yes! Using mushrooms – browned, then chopped fine – in place of meat is a popular way to make dirty rice. Zatarain’s Dirty Rice Mix contains no animal products, so it’s a good way to experiment with your favorite meat substitute (and it’s also very good if you make it with only water and a touch of olive oil).
Are you supposed to make dirty rice for a specific time of year or holiday?
While there’s a good chance you’ll find a casserole of dirty rice on the table during virtually any holiday meal, the dish isn’t associated with any particular holiday or season. One variation, dulac dirty rice, features sweet raisins, savory bacon and pecans and is a holiday favorite on many tables in South Louisiana. That said, dirty rice is a year-round favorite.
Dirty rice has a long, challenging history, and comes from a dark place in the Unites States’ history. But it is steeped in tradition and has found its place in culinary excellence. Embrace and enjoy its diversity of flavors!
- 2 cups chicken broth
- 1 bay leaf
- 1½ cup long grain rice
- 1 tablespoon bacon fat or vegetable oil
- ½ lb ground beef
- ½ lb ground pork
- 6 oz. chicken livers finely chopped
- 1 onion chopped
- 1 stalk celery chopped
- ½ green bell pepper seeded and chopped
- ¼ teaspoon dried thyme
- 2 cloves garlic minced
- ½ teaspoon salt
- 2 teaspoons Cajun seasoning blend of paprika, oregano, thyme, chili pepper, garlic, salt and pepper
- Reserve ½ cup chicken broth and pour the rest into a pot.
- Add 1½ cup of water and the bay leaf. Put to boil.
- Add the rice, cover and cook for about 15 minutes over low-medium heat.
- Heat the bacon fat in a Dutch oven. Add the chopped beef and pork and crumble them with a wooden spoon.
- Add the onion, celery and green bell pepper. Cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally until the beef is no longer pink and the vegetables are softened.
- Add the chicken liver and garlic and continue cooking for 5 minutes.
- Add the salt, Cajun seasoning and thyme.
- Add the reserved chicken broth and scrape the bottom of the Dutch oven to release all the brown pieces.
- Simmer one minute.
- Remove the bay leaf from the rice and add the rice in the Dutch oven. Stir well.
- Remove from the heat and serve very hot.