Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Cuban-style black beans, I think (beware of puerile humor)

I am cursed with an excellent memory for foods that I have cooked and/or eaten. There are some days when it is touch and go whether I remember my kids names, but I can often recall how I made something in 1978. Like this dish.

It was spring of my senior year in college in Chicago, and Henry Chao, who thought that he was something of a social failure, was coming over to our house for dinner before driving overnight to Boston with some people he didn't know. We made this version of black beans and rice, which was delicious. We did, however, cook the beans in the soaking water, which though it does add to the flavor also adds considerably to the amount of gas produced by those who eat it. As my roommates and I suffered through our musical evening, we could only think of how Henry must have felt. I don't recall him talking to any of us the rest of the year.

I think the recipe came from one of the early New York Times international cookbooks, but I haven't been able to find it so at this point I claim it as my own. I think it was called Cuban-style black beans, but I may be wrong. If there was originally meat in it, it has become vegetarian over time. You could always add a hunk of the smoky/fatty/salty animal bit of your choice when you cook the beans, but it really doesn't need it. It is easy and good.

I made this tonight for dinner at my daughter's insistence. She said the weather called for it, and she was right. I didn't have a recipe, but cooked more or less from memory from over 30 years ago. I wish I could remember other things as well. We had it with rice and some ropa vieja leftovers from the freezer.

Cuban-style black beans

  • 1 pound dried black beans
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 medium or one large onion, chopped
  • 1 green pepper, chopped
  • 3-9 cloves of garlic, to taste, peeled
  • coarse salt, about 1 teaspoon
  • 1/2 teaspoons black peppercorns
  • rind of 1 lemon, grated
  • 1 teaspoon cumin
  • 1/2 teaspoon oregano
  • juice of 1/2 lemon

  1. Pick over beans to remove stones and odd looking bits, rinse well, and soak 6-8 hours or overnight. (As I have said before, beans are not phantoms. It is the time and not the time of day that counts.)
  2. Boil water in a kettle. (This should probably be the second or third thing you do every evening when you walk into the house, since you will probably end up using it and it will save lots of time later.)
  3. Drain and rinse beans. (Decreases though does not eliminate negative consequences later).
  4. Place in a 4 quart pot and cover with the boiling water by about 1/2 inch. Add more water if necessary. Bring to a boil, skim the scum if there is much, and simmer until nearly done. If the beans look like they are drying out, add more water. Duh. This can take from 25-40 minutes, but see below for more detail.
  5. Meanwhile, saute the onion in the olive oil on medium heat. When soft but not brown, add the green pepper and saute until soft.
  6. Meanwhile, crush the garlic with the coarse salt and peppercorns until you have a paste. Add the lemon zest, cumin and oregano and crush some more.
  7. Add the garlic and spice mixture to the onions and peppers, and saute a few minutes until fragrant and the garlic loses some of its raw odor.
  8. Add the lemon juice and cook a minute more.
  9. The the beans are almost soft -- the skins of a few will be splitting but most will still have some bite or tooth to them, add the seasonings. Cook on very low heat about 10 minutes more.
  10. Ideally, shut the heat and let the beans sit for 10 minutes to an hour and then reheat. This will allow the beans, which were cooked without salt to absorb it and the other seasonings. If you want the liquid to be thicker, mash some of the beans before you reheat, but reheat very carefully so that you don't burn them.
  11. Serve with rice. Other nice accompaniments, depending on the meal, are olive oil (including garlic or hot pepper seasoned oil), hot sauce, vinegar (balsamic and sherry are especially nice), chopped onion, avocado, cilantro and sour cream.
Canned or dried beans?: In almost all cases, dried beans are superior, and don't contain the sudsy goo that canned beans do. Although it takes a bit more time, it takes almost no effort to cook them, only time. It also saves money. You can also control the texture of the end product. Black beans are one of the only varieties that I have found that are a partial exception to this. Canned black beans tend to be firmer than the others, but you still have to rinse off the goo in the can and you don't get the nice bean broth. If you make this dish with canned beans, you can either add some vegetable or chicken broth, or have drier beans without the liquid. But you should really make it from scratch. The actual time it takes to cook them is hard to predict and depends largely on the age of the beans. I tend to cook them in relatively little water, so there will be some nice broth but it won't be too soupy, and start tasting as early as 20 minutes after they start to cook. Why do it from scratch if you end up with mush?

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