Black Beans

Wed 06 August 2003

Black beans are a typical dish in all countries in and around the Caribbean: the islands, México, Central America, and the North of South America. They’re a favorite because they’re delicious, they can be prepared to accompany many foods or as main dish, they taste great when prepared in advance, and they’re very nutritious.

This recipe describes my favorite way of preparing black beans. Some variations are described at the end.

Basic Ingredients for 4 people

  • One pound of black beans
  • Salt

Cleaning

The harvesting process may leave small sticks or stones in black beans. Be sure remove them, specially the stones. Take a handful of beans at a time, lay the beans flat on the table, and remove any strange objects, as well as any split or deformed beans.

Soaking

Black beans are tough beans, so they usually require plenty of cooking, more so the more the beans have been in storage. Rather than cooking the beans indefinitely, or use a pressure cooker (which is known may become a WMD when combined with black beans), I prefer to soak the beans in water for several hours before starting the actual cooking. Black beans may be soaked for just a couple of hours, overnight, or from early morning till afternoon. The more they’re soaked the less the cooking that will be required. Soaking has the additional advantage that, unlike the cooking, it can be done unattended.

Place the clean black beans on a bowl that can hold at least double the volume of the beans. Fill the bowl with water, and let it rest for at least two hours. If left to soak long enough, the beans will absorb most or all of the water.

Cooking

Drain the soaked beans discarding any remaining liquid, wash them with running water, and place them in a tall cooking pot that can hold at least double the volume of the beans. Add water to cover twice the volume of the beans, and turn on the heat to max. After the liquid starts boiling, lower the heat until you get a simmer.

Cook the black beans stirring every once in a while until they are tender, but not so tender that they start loosing their skins or breaking. This shouold take about two hours. Always keep the liquid level a little above the beans by adding one cup of water at a time when needed. You can let the liquid reduce after the beans are done.

To know when the beans are done, byte one. The beans, when done, should be “al dente”, that is, in one piece, shiny black on the outside, and white and soft on the inside. The remaining liquid should have become very black and creamy.

The reason why so much attention is required for cooking black beans is because the tenderness/toughness of black beans varies widely. To be cooked to the right point, they require being looked after throughout.

Seasoning

Salt

Add salt to taste, and you already have a black bean dish.

Syrup

The flavor of black beans becomes more characteristic and intense when sugar is added. I use sugar-cane syrup when available, but plain sugar works too. You can experiment with whatever syrup you have at hand. Add a spoonful of syrup to the black beans, stir, and taste, until you feel their flavor intensify. Stop before there’s the smallest hint of sweetness.

Once more, you have a delicious and ready black bean dish.

Olive Oil

Olive oil is of European origin, so its not really part of traditional American black bean dishes. But olive oil does wonders to black beans. I may have gotten this idea from one of my European family members. Add a swirl of olive oil to the black beans before serving them, or place the olive oil on the table so people can help themselves.

Spices

I’ve found that a pinch of freshly ground coriander or nutmeg combines marvelously with black beans. I always add some black pepper. You may experiment with any of the “sweet” spices. Seasoning Coarsely chop several cloves of garlic, and about half a cup of bell peppers and onions. Sauté in a little olive oil over medium heat until the garlic starts changing color. Stir the mix into the black beans an cook for a few minutes before serving.

Variations

Moors and Christians

The intense taste of black beans goes very well with white rice, and that’s how black beans are traditionally served throughout the Caribbean. The best white rice is the one cooked “French style”. Black beans and white rice is called “Moors and Christians” in Cuba and other Northern Caribbean islands.

Pork

As with other kinds of beans, all sorts of pork go great with black beans. You can serve the pork as a separate dish, our you can chop it into bite sized pieces, pre-cook it, and add it to the simmering beans before they’re done. Smoked ribs, and all kinds of spicy sausages work great.

Sweet Black Beans

Black beans are delicious at all degrees of sweetness, from plain, to very sweet (some people like them very sweet only, so they always add sugar to the black beans on the table). You may vary the degree of sweetness of black beans to suit the dishes you’re serving them with. For example, if you’re serving meat with a spicy or hot sauce, you may serve sweet black beans to provide contrast and relief. There are Japanese recipes for black bean ice cream, and sweet black bean filled buns.

Refritas

Leftover black beans taste great. The beans will continue to absorb water when placed in the fridge, and reheating them will make the mix much thicker than when the beans where originally prepared. Use a sautéing pan to reheat leftover black beans. Cook until you get the texture you want. Reheated leftover black beans are called “caraotas refritas” (refried black beans) in Venezuela, and they are a traditional breakfast dish.

Tacos

Mexican recipes use a very pasty version of black beans. To use black beans as a filling or topping for bread, buns, etc., you need to make them pasty so the beans hold together. Else they will easily fall out and escape their wrap. To get pasty black beans, just keep adding liquid to the beans on the first preparation. You can also use “refritas” (left over black beans), adding liquid only if needed. The more you cook, the more the beans will break and become pasty.

Black Bean Soup

To make black bean soup just cook the beans with more water, or re-hydrate the beans with water or broth after they’re done. Try not to overcook the beans so they don’t break. Season to taste.

Black Bean Cream

To make black bean cream, just run a black bean soup through the blender.