by Ada Bello
If you grew up in a Cuban household, you had black beans at least once a day. In my home, the color and type of the lunchtime beans was negotiable: white, red, green, garbanzos; but for dinner they had to be black, to be eaten on white rice, accompanied by a meat dish of some kind. No one ever questioned the custom – it would have been like challenging the law of gravity.
I can’t say I inherited my mother’s black bean recipe, because she never cooked them until the changes in the political situation made her venture into the kitchen. But, in a way, maybe I did. She faithfully watched a very popular cooking show in Cuban television called “Cocina al Minuto,” hosted by somebody by the name of Nitza Villapol.
She was as well known in Cuba as Julia Child was in this country, but her show was far more practical and down to earth. Villapol’s instructions were detailed and clear, used easy-to-find ingredients, and did not shy away from designating them by their commercial name: dry cooking wine was not simply “vino seco,” but “vino seco Edmundo.”
She did that as long as the brands were available, later adapting her approach to the prevailing circumstances, offering suggestions for substitutions, and bravely cooking on with whatever resources could be obtained. One of the things my mother brought from Cuba when coming to this country was the “Cocina al Minuto” cookbook. Today one can find the book in Miami, in pirated editions for which Villapol received no compensation.
But back to the black beans. At some point after leaving college, I had to face the fact that to survive I needed some cooking skills. The kitchen is not my natural environment; I enjoy good food, but I consider it prudent to leave its preparation to the experts.
However, economics and other practical reasons pushed me to consider undertaking some culinary explorations. Improvising was out of the question because improvisation requires some knowledge of the materials you are working with, and I had none.
So, my only hope was to utilize my training as a chemist and follow cooking recipes the way one uses a protocol in a laboratory manual. And that was how “Cocina al Minuto” became my Cuban kitchen pharmacopoeia and salvation.
I was selective in my choices, though. Nothing that required long cooking or preparation time, or special dexterity (my one attempt at flipping an omelet landed it in the cat dish), made it into my repertoire. In fact, the choices had remained quite limited. But those few selections, my friends tell me, are very successful, a fact I attribute to my close observance of good manufacturing practices.
One of my favorites is, of course, black beans, without which it will be impossible to celebrate my only vestigial connection with Christmas, the Dec. 24 Cuban Nochebuena feast. But I don’t limit the dish to that once-a-year application. Having mastered the recipe, I had made it into the centerpiece of my dinner parties.
Many things recommend it: once standardized, the steps are rather simple to follow; freezing the final product only improves its taste; and, although it probably represents a sacrilegious departure from the original recipe, which has you stirring the mixture for four punishing hours. I have discovered that I get the same results by using a slow cooker. Cook’s liberation, at last.
I feel socially secure having a container of frozen black beans in my freezer should the need arise for a festive occasion. Therefore, two or three times a year I prepare a batch that will last for several events. Now, this requires careful scheduling, since once the operation gets in motion, it can’t be stopped.
The preparation starts the previous night with the soaking of the beans in water with a pinch of bicarbonate of soda. The purpose of the latter has never been clear to me; some say it helps soften the beans, others that it is used to avoid the gaseous consequences of eating them. I don’t question the reason. Nitza Villapol says to do it, and she knew best.
Next day, I attach a copy of the recipe to the refrigerator for easy consulting, wash the bicarbonate off the beans, and start cooking them while, in a separate pot, I am preparing that essential starting point in the creation of most Cuban dishes: the sofrito.
I must admit it took some time before the resulting product of that operation matched the book’s description (onions and peppers looking transparent and not charred beyond recognition), but now I feel confident of my technique.
While those two processes are going, I consult my instructions and start lining up the spices and other ingredients – all in the order in which they are listed, accompanied by their respective measuring devices. The first few times this step involved some anxiety, since boiling beans has the tendency of sneakingly getting stuck to the bottom of the pot, or boiling over, causing a mess that can get into the most intimate crevices of your stove. Again, through the years, I have come to feel more in control, although vigilance is always required. Above all, do not answer the phone!
Then comes the mixing of the two parts, the adding of spices, wine, vinegar, etc. to the pot, followed by closely watching and stirring the boiling mixture for about a half hour or so, more time than I would like, but a hell of a lot less than cooks in the old country had to do.
That done the whole thing goes into the slow cooker and there it remains until I get out of bed the next morning. The down side is that by now everything in the apartment, including my hair and clothing, and probably my neighbor’s apartment, smells of slow simmering peppers, onions and garlic.
The good side is that I have what I need to plan several social occasions with little work or culinary performance anxiety. As in a purification ritual, I open the windows, shower, wash my hair, and I am ready to face the world with a renewed confidence.
One more virtue recommends this most revered of Cuban dishes: it contains no meat. Cubans are omni-carnivorous – our idea of a vegetarian dish is chicken. But black beans are an exception and it has served me well in these health conscious times — vegetarian cooking is something that I plan to undertake, perhaps in my next life. For now, there are these beans, shiny black, aromatic, comforting . . . beautiful enough to make you genuflect in front of the pot.
Frijoles Negros (Black Beans)
Serves 8 or 9 when served on rice.
Active time: 3 hours Start to finish: 12 – 14 hours (not counting soaking time).
1 lb. dry black beans
10-11 cups water
1-1/4 to 2 cups chopped or ground onions
½ to ¾ cup chopped or green peppers
1/3 cup olive oil
3 tsp. salt
½ tsp. pepper
¼ tsp. oregano
¼ tsp. cumin
1 or 2 bay leaves
1 tsp. sugar
1 garlic clove, minced
1 tsp. vinegar
3 tbs. dry white wine
Wash beans and soak them in about 10 cups of water overnight. You can add a pinch of baking soda, but this is optional.
Next day, pour out the soaking water and rinse the beans if you did add baking soda.
Place beans in a large pot and add the 10 – 11 cups of water. Cook until fairly soft, about 1 hour.
While beans are cooking, put oil in a skillet and cook the onion, green peppers, and garlic. Add about 1 cup of the soft beans to the skillet and mash them down with a fork.
Once that is done, return the contents of the skillet, with the mashed beans, to the pot and blend. Add the salt, pepper, oregano, cumin, bay leaf, sugar, vinegar and white wine.
Cook slowly for about ½ hour or until all alcohol from the wine has evaporated. (During the long cooking periods, stir often to make sure the beans are not sticking to the bottom of the pot.)
Transfer the contents of the pot to a crockpot/slow cooker. Cook on High for about 1 hour and on Low for ½ hours or overnight.
Before serving, retrieve the bay leaf.
Once cooked, the beans can be stored frozen.