Beans, beans, good for your heart. The more you eat … well, let’s just leave it at that and focus on the wonderful health and flavor benefits that beans lend to so many dishes!
The black bean, also known as a turtle bean and the frijol negro, is a prized ingredient in ethnic delicacies from Mexico, Central and South America and the Caribbean. It is believed that the black bean originated in southern Mexico and Central America more than 7,000 years ago, evidenced by excavations of prehistoric dwelling sites. Black beans, along with corn and squash, comprised the staples of the Latin American diet. Black beans are now a valued culinary contribution resulting from increased immigration and the infusion of epicurean culture and tradition that followed. Black beans are now enjoyed throughout the United States, particularly in Florida and the southwestern region.
Black beans are grown during warm seasons, ideal temperatures ranging from 65-75 degrees F. They also require arid climates in order to dry and cure on the plant, which can take as long as 120 days, before the beans are harvested.
As the name implies, black beans possess shiny black outer skins, their interiors, however, are beige in color. The black bean is a member of the dried bean and pea family known as legumes. They are an excellent protein source, high in fiber and low in fat. The dense texture makes it an excellent meat substitute in dishes such as the burrito.
Note that here we are talking about the black beans that we see in soups, burritos, chilies, dips and as side dish accompaniments to Latin American poultry or meat dishes. The beans are available dried in plastic bag packaging as well as in cans for faster preparation. To differentiate, Asian food fans will often notice items on Chinese and Thai menus prepared with black bean sauce. The black beans used as the base for such sauces and pastes is actually derived not from these black beans, but from fermented black soybeans, known as douchi.
Dried beans must be prepared and cooked for use in recipes. Place the black beans in a large pot and fill the pot with water. Allow the beans to soak overnight. The beans will then need to be drained and rinsed. Return them to the pot, fill the pot with water again and bring to a boil on the stovetop. Reduce heat to a low simmer and allow them to cook for 1-2 hours. The cooking time depends on the age of the beans. Needless to say, this method is just plain inconvenient. Canned beans, which are already cooked and ready to use, are a perfectly acceptable substitute (and one of the few canned goods I actually buy, in addition to tomatoes!). Unlike many vegetables, the nutritional content found in beans does not break down during the cooking process. When using canned beans, be sure to dump them into a colander and rinse them very thoroughly before adding them to your dish.
As I have already alluded, black beans can be used in a vast array of culinary preparations, from appetizers to first courses to hot and cold sides to vegetarian entrees. The easiest black bean side dish requires no recipe, it is something that I just throw together quickly to serve with chicken or pork chops. Simply drain and rinse a can of black beans. In a saucepan, warm some ground cumin in olive oil until fragrant. Add the beans and some chopped fresh cilantro, stir to coat thoroughly and add salt to taste. That’s it. Don’t like cilantro? No problem, use scallions instead, thinly sliced crosswise; it’s just as good.
Now here are some black bean recipes that I have made over and over again. The dip always disappears whenever I make it for social gatherings. In fact, I had passed this recipe along to a long time family friend years ago. I recently met up with her and she thanked me emphatically for the recipe that she has contributed to multiple get-togethers. She does experience the same problem that I do: it disappears in no time, so you may want to make a couple of batches for a party. Enjoy it on a barbecue night as an appetizer while the grill gets hot or during a game this football season.
BLACK BEAN DIP
2 15-ounce cans black beans, drained and thoroughly rinsed
1/3 cup corn oil
1/3 cup olive oil
6 garlic cloves, minced
2 teaspoons hot sauce
1 tablespoon lime juice
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
1 teaspoon salt
¼ cup chopped fresh cilantro
Okay, now pay attention and don’t blink: dump all of the above ingredients into a large food processor bowl and process until well combined and smooth. Done! Turn out the dip into a serving bowl, top with a generous dollop of sour cream and serve with tortilla chips.
As the autumn temperature soon descends, cravings for soup ensue. With the exceptions of a velvety and creamy lobster bisque or a cold gazpacho or vichyssoise, most of us have shunned the potions for the last three months. Here’s an excellent black bean soup to kick off the soup season with.
BLACK BEAN SOUP
2 15-ounce cans black beans, drained and thoroughly rinsed
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 onion, chopped
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon chili powder
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 teaspoon ground cumin
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon chipotle chili powder
¼ cup cream sherry
1 ½ cups diced tomatoes
5 cups chicken stock
2 tablespoons finely chopped cilantro
Heat the oil in a stockpot over medium-high heat. Add the onion and garlic, and sauté until the onion is translucent. Stir in the chili powder, oregano, cumin, salt and chipotle powder, stirring for about a minute until fragrant. Add the sherry, stir for about thirty seconds. Stir in the tomatoes and then the stock and cilantro. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, cover and simmer for thirty minutes. Ladle the soup into soup bowls and top each serving with a dollop of sour cream. Serves 4.
For those who like it hot, double the amount of chipotle chili powder. To make a vegetarian variation, replace the chicken stock with vegetable stock.
Looking for more? Here you can find my recipe for black beans and rice.
Food for Thought
Many different varieties of beans are available in both canned and dried packaging. Since beans provide a complex carbohydrate, protein, fiber and essential vitamins and minerals, consider making them a part of your dinner menus. In the same manner in which I suggested cooking a quick black bean side dish, use a similar method with cannellini beans, substituting minced garlic for the cumin and finely chopped sage or rosemary for the cilantro or scallions, and you have a quick side for any Italian or Provencal meal. Red kidney beans and pinto beans are commonly used in making chili; I like to use both in combination. Chick peas are great additions to salads, for making hummus and, when warmed with a mixture of turmeric, cumin, Garam Masala, chili powder, chopped cilantro, ginger and garlic, you have a perfect accompaniment for an Indian repast. Use red beans for a Cuban side of red beans and rice, pigeon peas and saffron for South American rice and gandules, and make a Cajun-style hopping John to pair with southern U.S. fare. By stocking all of these in your pantry, you will always be ready to throw together a healthful, substantial and flavorful side to any menu.