Food is about so much more than nutrition—it’s one of the most personal expressions of our cultures, values, and traditions. Our series, Behind the Recipe, profiles a different healthy cook every month to explore the personal, untold stories of their favorite dishes. This month, Chef Rene Johnson—known as the Vegan Soul Food Guru and counts Vice President Kamala Harris as a fan—shares her recipe for vegan dirty rice, inspired by cooking with her grandmother. Johnson’s first-ever cookbook, From My Heart To Your Table ($30) is out this month.
Even though I’m a chef now, when I was growing up I wasn’t a big eater. But the experiences surrounding food always excited me. I can remember my grandmother slicing into a ripe cantaloupe and cutting into the flesh and saying, “Rene, look how beautiful this is!” or picking up a fresh peach and inhaling its delicate sweetness. And then there was the fun we would have around the table. I’d gather around my grandmother’s table with all my cousins, aunts, uncles, and parents and there was just so much joy being shared.
My mom wasn’t big on cooking like my grandma was. But what my mom did was expose me to food at some of the finest restaurants. We traveled and ate all over, from the Bay Area in California to Texas and Louisiana. It was this mixture of fun experiences with food—my grandma’s home-cooked meals and dining out at amazing restaurants with my mom—that led me to pursue a career as a chef.
My grandmother is the person who taught me to cook. She taught me the secret to making hot water cornbread. She taught me how to make the best potato salad you would ever taste. She made everything using fresh ingredients, most of which were grown right on her ranch. I still remember the rows of vegetables and the giant peach tree growing in her yard. I love taking the soul food I grew up eating and giving my own twist to it—usually a twist that makes it vegan. When I cook—whether it’s for a whole party of people or just my family—I want as many people to be able to eat what I make as possible. To do that, I keep the main dishes completely vegan and then have meat proteins that can be added in, if someone chooses to do that. You can still have a delicious mac-and-cheese while keeping it vegan. And then, if someone wants to have it with some chicken or fried fish, they can do that.
Something we ate a lot when I was growing up was dirty rice. My grandmother is from Louisiana, which is where dirty rice originated from. Dirty rice was basically made with the leftovers of everything. That’s how soul food originated really; we got what was left over from the big feast. Dirty rice is a recipe that’s spicy, savory, and simple. Traditionally, what makes it “dirty” is chicken liver. That’s how my grandmother liked to make it. My version is vegan, but you can add chicken liver or other meat to it if you want. Something that I didn’t change, though, is that it’s full of fresh vegetables; that is key. I like to put bell peppers, onion, and celery in mine, but whatever vegetables you have at home will do.
One cooking tip I recommend to everyone when following this dirty rice recipe is adding a bay leaf to the rice when it’s cooking. It adds so much flavor. The other herbs are important too, but the bay leaf is especially important. Once your dirty rice is made, you can pair it with greens, candied yams, or really anything else you have. What I love about this dirty rice recipe is that it goes a long way; you can feed a whole lot of people with it.
All the ingredients are affordable and accessible. It really is an easy dish to make and you can customize it to fit whatever your preferences are or the leftovers you want to use. However you make your dirty rice, it will be full of lots love and lots of soul. That’s something that’s engrained right into this dish and will never change, no matter how you cook it.
Rene Johnson’s dirty rice recipe
2 cups of rice (preferably converted; it’s foolproof and you won’t have sticky rice)
4 1/2 cups of water
2 Tbsp olive oil to add to rice
2 Tbsp oil for sauteing vegetables
5 bay leaves
1 medium onion, chopped
2 tsp of minced garlic
1 medium green bell pepper, diced
1 medium red bell pepper, diced
3 stocks of celery, chopped, about 1 cup
1 tsp of cumin
1 tsp of oregano
1 1/4 tsp of paprika
1 tsp of dry mustard
1 tsp chili powder
1/2 lb. ground chicken liver
1/2 lb. cooked ground beef
1/2 lb. cooked diced sausage
1. Combine all dry seasonings in a small bowl and set aside. Add oil into a large skillet, place on the stove on medium-high heat, allow oil to heat up then add onion, bell peppers, celery, and garlic for about three to four minutes until onions are tender.
2. Stir dry mixture into vegetable mixture. Mixture should be wet. Set mixture aside.
3. In a medium-sized stockpot, add 1 1/2 teaspoon of salt, water, and bay leaf. Bring to boil and then add rice to water. Note: the water should be 2 1/2 inches over the rice. Once your water has begun to boil, reduce heat, cover, and simmer for 20 minutes. Important: do not remove the lid from the rice. Make sure to set a timer for 20 minutes. Once the timer goes off, allow to sit for five minutes.
4. Once rice is done, remove bay leaves, stir in vegetable mixture, and add salt to taste if needed.
As told by Emily Laurence.
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