The start of many Creole and Cajun dishes calls for the Holy Trinity. This seasoning base is the Louisiana version of the traditional mirepoix and is a combination of three aromatic ingredients: onions, bell pepper, and celery.
Where does the name Holy Trinity come from?
Around the world, you’ll find the trinity of cooking called many different things. In France, it’s the mirepoix (onion, carrot, celery). In Germany, it’s the suppengrün (carrot, celeriac, leek). In Italy, it’s the soffritto (onions, carrot, celery). In Spain, it’s the sofrito (onion, bell pepper, tomato). In Louisiana, it’s the Holy Trinity (onions, bell pepper, celery).
France has had a heavy influence on the cooking style of southern Louisiana. From the roux, to the beignets, to the cafe au lait. The French version of the mirepoix (pronounced mirh-pwah) uses carrots instead of bell peppers, but when the French colonists were forced from Acadia (modern-day Nova Scotia), they found that carrots were difficult to harvest in Louisiana compared to the spicier green bell peppers.
The Spanish had another major influence on the beginning stages of Lousiana’s cuisine, and their usage of bell peppers in the sofrito probably made an important impact on the Creoles and Cajuns using bell peppers, as well. The Spanish style of cooking was the basic preparation of many dishes found around the Caribbean and Latin America. As the immigrants and slaves made their way into the port town of New Orleans, they brought their unique cooking styles and added to the French style that had started it all.
Many believe that the great, late Paul Prudhomme coined the phrase “The Holy Trinity” as a nod to Louisiana’s big Catholic influence in a newspaper article in 1981. We’ll never know who first said it, but it was first publicly heard by him. The phrase describes the three “divine persons” in the Catholic faith: the Father (God), the Son (Jesus Christ), and the Holy Spirit. But in the cooking sense, it’s onions, green bell peppers, and celery.
Who is The Pope?
Another important ingredient that adds to the trinity is garlic. Garlic is sometimes referred to as ‘the pope’ which is another nod to the Catholic faith. I have made a few recipes where I use ‘da Pope’.
The famous recipe is my Creole Seasoned Turkey and Holy Trinity Stuffing with da Pope and the Hot Nun. Can you figure that one out? This recipe was runner-up in the Taste of Home magazine’s 2015 Thanksgiving recipe contest.
The other recipe I use ‘da Pope’ in is my slow cooker chicken recipe called Chicken Drumsticks Da Pope. Sound fancy? By following that link you can also find more information on the health benefits of consuming garlic, as well.
Cooking with the Holy Trinity?
The three ingredients seem so simple on their own, but together, they are a powerful first step in creating a complex flavor for so many recipes. The end result may differ based on the recipe that you are making but the initial preparation with the Holy Trinity is usually done in one of two ways.
The first way is how I start off my Monday Red Beans and Rice or a jambalaya. Dice the trinity into nice even-sized pieces. The ratio of each ingredient is usually 2:1:1 (onions, bell pepper, and celery). I purchase a large onion, a small green bell pepper, and about 3 stalks of celery (1/2-cup).
In a large pot or Dutch oven, heat 2-3 tablespoons of either extra-virgin olive oil, vegetable oil, or bacon fat and saute the trinity over MEDIUM heat until the vegetables have softened – about 10 minutes. This is also called “sweating the vegetables” because you’re releasing the flavorful moisture from within them. This process also causes the vegetable to brown and caramelize which adds more depth of flavor to the recipe you’re making.
The second way the Holy Trinity is commonly used in the beginning stages of a recipe is when it follows the roux. A roux is made, like in a gumbo or étouffée, and when it just about hits the desired color, the trinity is added to the pot and to help stop the roux from continuing to cook and potentially burn – which will put off a bitter flavor and ruin the final dish.
Recipes that use the Holy Trinity:
The flavor that comes out of using the trinity in cooking sets up the foundation of most Creole and Cajun and makes it simply unique. You’ll find the Holy Trinity in these recipes:
- Monday Red Beans and Rice
- Chicken and Sausage with Okra Gumbo
- Stovetop Jambalaya
- Forgotten Once Slowcooker Jambalaya
- Chicken Creole
- Stewed Chicken
- Chicken Noodle Soup
The Holy Trinity and Red Beans and Rice
My favorite combination of the trinity in my red beans and rice is 2 parts onion, 1 part green bell pepper, and 1 part celery. You’ll find plenty of recipes that omit bell pepper or celery from their red beans, but I like the trifecta of flavor that all three bring to the pot. When shopping, I buy one large onion, a small green bell pepper, and use about 1/2-cup of diced celery.
PRO TIP: Don’t worry too much about the exact measurement of the diced trinity. If you only have two large onions and large bell pepper, that’s fine.
After I saute the trinity down, usually in rendered bacon fat, I add heaping amounts of minced garlic to the pot and stir until the garlicky aroma can be smelled. Then I start to add some seasoning – like Creole seasoning and hot sauce – along with water, smoked ham hocks, and Camellia brand red beans. Bring the pot to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer until the red beans are nice and creamy.
During the long, low, and slow simmering step, the trinity will break down and meld into the gravy of the red beans. If made correctly, you shouldn’t really see any of the vegetables. And there should not be any crunchy pieces whatsoever. If you do see full pieces of onions, bell peppers, or celery, and they do have a firm bite to them, they were not sautéed long enough in the beginning steps – or the red beans were not simmered long enough.
You can of course play around with the combination of onions, bell peppers, and celery. In my interview with Panderina Soumas, she mentions that she uses every part of the bell pepper (including some of the seeds) and lots of celery – including the leaves.
If you want to see how I prepare my Monday red beans and rice recipe (the one pictured above), you can follow this link. In the article, I also share how red beans became the famous New Orleans Monday tradition and what my favorite brand of red beans is.
Let me know what you think of this article in the comment section below. What’s your ratio of vegetables in the trinity? Do you use more or less in your red bean recipe?
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Cooking the Holy Trinity
- 2-3 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil or rendered bacon fat
- 1-2 large onions diced
- 1 green bell pepper diced
- 2-3 stalks of celery diced
Dice all of the ingredients into even size pieces.
In a large pot or Dutch oven, heat the oil of choice or rendered bacon fat over MEDIUM heat.
Add the diced trinity (onions, green bell pepper, and celery) to the pot and saute until the vegetables are tender and the onions are translucent - about 8-10 minutes.
Continue on with the beginning of your recipe. The next step is usually the addition of minced garlic.
NOTES: what you're making will dictate how much of each of the vegetables you will need. When I'm making my Monday Red Beans and Rice, I go with 1 large onion, 1 small green bell pepper, and 3 stalks of celery which is about 1/2 cup worth, and saute it in rendered bacon fat. I like the smoky base that the bacon offers.
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Eric Olsson is the food blogger of RedBeansAndEric.com. He publishes new recipes and interviews weekly. He has developed recipes and written articles for the famous Camellia brand in New Orleans, Louisiana. He has been mentioned in Louisiana Cookin‘ magazine and has had recipes featured in Taste of Home magazine – with his Creole Turkey recipe being runner up in their annual Thanksgiving recipe contest. He lives outside of Detroit, Michigan, with his wife and four children.