Mrs. Wilkes’ Savannah Red Rice

Selma Wilkes finally passed to her reward a couple of years ago at age ninety-five, after operating her legendary Mrs. Wilkes’ Boarding House restaurant (today, Mrs. Wilkes’ Dining Room) in Savannah for more than half a century. Many were the times I stood in the long lunch line out front to sit at a communal table, eat fried chicken, stewed okra and tomatoes, and squash casserole, and, of course, to chat with Mrs. Wilkes. The array of Southern dishes there was staggering, and none was so luscious as her version of this great Savannah rice specialty bursting with tomatoes. Today, Mrs. Wilkes’ great-grandson continues most of the sacred tradition (minus breakfast), and, blessedly, the red rice is as glorious as ever. In Savannah, the rice is always served as a side dish, but if you want to transform it into a main course, as I’ve done on occasion, add about half a pound of small peeled and deveined shrimp or sliced link pork sausages that have been browned, along with a little chicken broth or water, before transferring the mixture to the casserole.

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Ingredients

  • 4 strips lean bacon
  • 2 medium onions, chopped
  • 2 medium green bell peppers, seeded and chopped
  • 2 cups cooked long-grain rice
  • One 16-ounce can stewed tomatoes (juices included)
  • 1 cup tomato juice
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
  • Tabasco sauce to taste

Method

Preheat the oven to 325°F.

In a large skillet, fry the bacon over moderate heat till almost crisp and drain on paper towels, reserving grease in the skillet. Crumble the bacon. Add the onions and bell peppers to the skillet and cook, stirring, till slightly browned, about 10 minutes. Add the rice, tomatoes plus their juices, tomato juice, salt and pepper, and Tabasco and cook, stirring, 5 minutes longer.

Scrape the mixture into a greased 2-quart casserole and bake, covered, till the rice is slightly dry, about 30 minutes.