One of the biggest perks to a childhood spent travelling the globe has been the introduction of varied types of food into the family repetoire. An invitation to dinner at my house might mean tandoori chicken , risotto or Chinese stir-fried noodles. A sleepover might mean waking up to pancakes, arepas or chocolate chip waffles. My parents, globe-trotters themselves from the point at which they met in West Africa during the 70s, have absorbed bits of culture from each country we've lived in. Our family culture is a patchwork of all these bits and bobs which have assembled into what our family experience has been, none the least of which has been the food. The black beans and rice I made tonight is a perfect example of this addition to our family culture that has now adapted to being a "homey" and comforting dish.
Before we moved to Cuba, the complimentary nature of black beans and rice was simply not in our family's vocabulary. But once you spend time in Cuba, it quickly becomes so as it is an economic staple, and often all there is. In fact, my parents once walked out of the Moosewood restaurant in Ithaca, NY simply because one of the four choices that evening was black beans and rice! And they just couldn't have any more black beans and rice, being fresh off the plane from Cuba. I personally have yet to reach that point, as black beans and rice is one of my absolutely favorite combinations. I can eat it day and day out with little complaint. But, as a vegetarian I do prefer to make it at home (or eat it at a very trustworthy restaurant). One of my least favorite parts about eating beans and rice in Cuba was finding little ham or pork bits swimming in the creamy black legumey goodness.
This recipe is from a book I bought at some point during college when I was no longer spending much time in Cuba, but missing the food. Called Memories of a Cuban Kitchen (by Mary Urrutia Randelman and Joan Schwartz), I think I've made a grand total of three of the more than 200 classic recipes the book contains. This particular recipe takes some time to prepare, however the recipe yields a tremendous amount from such few ingredients. This batch will be our brown-bag lunches for the week!
I made a couple changes. The recipe calls for 2/3 of a cup of olive oil, I used 1/3 and actually subbed some canola oil as I didn't even have enough olive oil left to make 1/3 of a cup. I roasted and chopped some poblano peppers, and threw them into the sofrito since they needed using up. And, I quick-soaked my beans. I brought them to a boil for 2-3 minutes, and let them sit for an hour. I then continued with the recipe, although I found my beans didn't require the 2 hour softening time the recipe called for (which was a good thing as we would have been eating at 10 o'clock if they had). And, as much as I'd like to have my act together enough to soak the beans the night before, its just not happening.
I served the meal with my version of light tostones. Tostones are twice-fried green plantains. They're absolutely delicious, but not something I like to cook too often. So, I've found that by browning the sliced green plantains in some cooking spray once, adding water to ensure they actually cook, removing to paper towel and salting before re-browning in cooking spray, I can create a passable "light" tostone. I keep tinkering with the concept, however this batch was the best yet. Along with the "light" tostones, we had roasted golden beets, and the chopped garlicky beet greens . Imagine the empty space to contain a bowl of beans and rice, and you've got the idea. I also like a little 2% cheddar cheese sprinkled on my black beans and rice, however that is entirely personal preference and up to the chef (and the consumer).
Mom's Black Beans
Memories of a Cuban Kitchen by Mary Urrutia Randelman and Joan Schwartz
Author's notes- My mother's black beans are rich and thick with a smooth opaque broth. My family judges Cuban restaurants by their beans - in other words, are the frijoles negros as good as Mom's? Very few have even come close.
1 pound dried black beans, rinsed in cold water, picked over and soaked overnight in cold water to cover by 1 1/2 inches (remove any beans that float to the top)
1 bay leaf
1 medium green bell pepper, seeded and cut into quarters
For the Sofrito
2/3 cup pure Spanish olive oil
3-4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 large onion, finely chopped
1 medium green bell pepper, seeded and finely chopped
2-3 teaspoons ground cumin
2 tablespoons cider vinegar, optional
1 teaspoon finely chpopped seeded aji cachucha or green chile
salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
1. The next day, check that the water is still covering the beans by 1 1/2 to 2 inches, and add more water if needed. Pour into a large saucepan, add the bay leaf and the pepper and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce heat to low, and cook uncovered until the beans are tender and they have almost cracked open (about 2 hours). Check the beans while they are cooking, and if they need more water add some hot water.
2. To prepare the sofrito, in a skillet heat the oil over low heat until it is fragrant. Add the garlic, onion and bell pepper, and cook stirring until onion is transparent (8-10 minutes). Add cumin, vinegar and chile pepper, and mix well.
3. Add the sofrito to the beans, mix well and cook over low heat covered utnil beans crack open (30-40 minutes). Season to taste and serve