The star dishes of south Louisiana cooking like gumbo, jambalaya and étouffée tend to outshine the less-lauded rice and gravy. In Penny Gauthier’s kitchen, she ensures this overlooked delight of local cuisine does not disappoint. Each step of the recipe, she adds a layer of flavor — elevating the rice and gravy to its rightful place of glory when it comes to Cajun dishes.
“I remember feeding my kids rice and gravy when they were little bitty in highchairs,” Gauthier said. “Now, when they come back home to Lafayette, the first thing they want to know is, ‘What are you cooking?’ And they usually ask for rice and gravy.”
My niece, a friend of Gauthier’s daughter, tipped me off about the deliciousness of this gravy made with country-style pork ribs. Gauthier shared her recipe and her approach to this staple meal, opening my mind to new thoughts about boxed gumbo mix, well-cooked rice and not eating at the table.
Gauthier grew up in a two-cook home with her parents, Verna and Harry Lalonde, both enjoying time at the stove. She learned a few things from watching what went in their Magnalites. Her mom would say, “Do not come in my kitchen. I’m cooking!”
Hearing these words, Gauthier would head to the family’s outdoor kitchen.
“Now, don’t go picturing a fancy outdoor kitchen,” she clarified. “This was our old stove put outside under a covered patio where I would pretend to make supper.”
As we went over the recipe together, I was a bit skeptical of one ingredient in particular, the boxed gumbo mix. It almost seemed like cheating. How dare they put gumbo in a box?
Reading the ingredients listed on the box I saw some items I would likely add to a gravy if I were making it myself without a recipe, plus a few I had not considered. It is basically a combination of flour, vegetables and seasonings. Gauthier uses it to thicken her gravy while adding flavor. She also uses it to give body to her red beans and rice.
With my first bite, I decided I could set aside my misgivings regarding boxed mixes for the sake of the intensity of flavor Gauthier achieved. It simplifies the recipe and would be useful for someone learning the combinations of spices used in Cajun cooking.
If you are a true purist, take a look at the ingredients in this mix next time you are grocery shopping. See if you notice any flavors you do not typically use and try adding those to your next gravy — perhaps a splash of vinegar or a pinch of dried mustard.
Like many Cajun cooks, Gauthier has definite preferences when it comes to rice — some of them may surprise you:
- Brand? Toro, a long grain rice that cooks like a medium grain which means it is sticky enough to hold the gravy while maintaining the individual grains.
- Number of times to rinse? Three.
- Measuring and cooking style? Finger method via the microwave: Add rice to a casserole dish; stick your finger to the bottom of the dish and note how far up the rice goes; add water until it reaches the same point on your finger when letting its tip rest on the top of the rice; add salt; and cook in the microwave uncovered for 20 minutes.
“My husband is from a family of rice farmers, and he doesn’t like mushy rice,” she noted.
Cooking it in the microwave produces the texture they both like. It was al dente in a way that complemented the smooth gravy and tender pork ribs. Gauthier cooked and served it in a casserole dish decorated with blue irises, a Corningware pattern she collects called “Shadow Iris.” (She also has a stack of the vintage 1970s pattern known as “French Spice o’ Life” with its vegetable and herb imagery.)
A meal like this can low simmer for hours while Gauthier works from home managing the family’s small businesses. It is a perfect meal for her no-nonsense approach to suppertime, which she described as, “Come grab it and eat wherever you want.”
She attributes this flexible approach to her Cajun heritage with its ties to farmwork. It worked well for her family when the kids were still at home and involved in various activities and it continues to work as her husband maintains a connection to farming and its erratic hours, spending his days tending to cattle and assisting with work on his family’s farm while also regularly checking in on the small businesses they own.
I have made rice and gravy many times, but I cannot recall ever following a recipe nor can I say that my results could ever compare to Gauthier’s. Her approach has inspired me to experiment a little with this south Louisiana standard — and gumbo mix is on my grocery list.
Country-style pork ribs and gravy
Recipe is by Penny Gauthier
¼ cup canola oil (optional)
8 country-style pork ribs (pre-seasoned from Hebert’s Meat Market in Maurice, if available)
1 16-ounce container Guidry’s fresh cut onion mix (or chop and mix 1 medium onion + ½ bell pepper + 2 stalks celery + 4 garlic cloves)
32 ounces Kitchen Basics beef stock or your preferred beef stock
1 2.2-ounce packet Beefy Onion Lipton Recipe Secrets
⅓ heaping cup Kary’s Gumbo Mix
Slap Ya Mama seasoning to taste, or your preferred seasoning blend (optional)
Garlic powder to taste (optional)
1. In a medium-sized pot, heat canola oil over medium heat. Add the pork ribs and brown on both sides. If meat sticks when trying to turn, it is not ready. Brown a little longer. Once browned well on both sides, remove to a platter. (If you prefer to omit the oil, add pork ribs to heated pot and add 1-3 teaspoons water to keep them from sticking in the browning process. Add more water as needed. The pork ribs will typically be fatty enough to prevent sticking without additional oil.)
2. Add chopped onion, bell pepper, celery and garlic mix to the pot and stir well, scraping the browned bits from bottom of pot. Saute until translucent — about three to five minutes.
3. Add beef stock and stir to incorporate. Bring to a simmering boil then add beefy onion packet. Stir well then add powdered gumbo mix. Stir well to combine.
4. Add the pork ribs back into the gravy in the pot, making sure the gravy is covering the meat.
5. Reduce heat to low and cover (making sure the lid is vented a little). Cook for two to three hours until meat is tender and gravy has thickened — checking often, gently pushing the ribs with a spoon so as not to break up the meat.
6. Serve over Toro rice. Goes well with green beans.