Saturday, November 6, 2010

frijoles negros, or everyday black beans

I think if you're going to eat something everyday - or quite often, it should be made from the kind of recipe that serves you well every time. I have a bunch of these recipes scrawled out on the back of envelopes and receipts poking out of books and stuck to the fridge; there's my version of Molly's banana bread, the flour/yeast/water ratios for Jim Lahey's no-knead bread and a splotched crinkly print-out of the recipe for classic zucchini slice. One of the other things I make every couple of weeks is a big pot of frijoles negros, or basic black beans soaked and simmered with a dried chipotle chile until inky and creamy and totally delicious. At a Mexican-themed BBQ I had last weekend where I served them alongside charcoal-grilled achiote chicken, pico de gallo, mango salsa, salmon, apple and ginger ceviche, corn tortillas and mint caramel flan, the recipe for black beans was the one people asked for.

But this is a recipe that doesn't exist on any of those bits of paper, actually. It's just a preparation I made up, liked and stuck to - a "recipe" that before now, I've never thought much about. I fell in love with the creamy, rich texture of black beans in Mexico and they've been on high rotation in my repertoire since I got my hands on a source for the dried beans back here in Melbourne. I just soak a couple of cupfuls of beans, then rinse and throw them into my cast iron pot, covered with plenty of cold water. I throw in a peeled garlic clove or two, a peeled whole onion and a dried chipotle chile, bring to the boil and then let the whole lot simmer away until it becomes a thick and dark magic brew that smells wholesome and smoky.

The beans can then be used for a million different things. You can serve them on nachos, or alongside sausages. You can use them, with salsa and queso fresco, to fill vegetarian tacos or empanadas. You can moosh them up, add some stock and serve with crema for a satisfying black bean soup. You could puree them into refried beans and serve as a dip with tostadas, alongside eggs for a traditional Mexican breakfast, or use a thick layer as an additional filling for Sunday morning hangover quesadillas. Or even better - and Aussies might have to trust me on this - you can serve them hot, spooned over the top of a plate of freshly cooked rice, garnished with coriander, chipotle crema, chunks of avocado, hot sauce and lime. It's my most favourite cheap, warming, filling comfort meal, but not something you hear much about down here in OZ.

While there's not exactly a recipe here for these babies, there are some things you should you know about cooking black beans that might help if you've never prepared them before:

1. Dried beans are better than canned. TRUE. I don't care what Jamie Oliver says - I can't afford imported canned black beans (at $5 a pop) and they're nowhere near as good as those you soak and simmer yourself. It may take some forethought, but it certainly doesn't take much time to soak beans while you sleep and to throw them in a pot to simmer for a few hours on a Saturday morning. Save dollars, food miles and packaging - and get compliments from everyone.

2.Good-quality, freshest dried beans are MUY IMPORTANTE, amigo. Black beans are a little hard to come by in Melbourne anyway, but those sold at Casa Iberica in Fitzroy are really worth the trip. Woolworths now sells black turtle beans under their 'Macro' label in the health food aisle; these are ok, but you just won't achieve the creaminess and flavour you're really after.

3. Don't throw salt into that water! At least not for the first hour or so. Word on the street is that this makes them tough as little stones (though I've heard contradictory theories too). I've always seasoned later and never had a problem with tough beans, so I'm sticking to this rule. Salt some after an hour or so of cooking and adjust as necessary when they're done.

4. Flavour as you like. I throw in a dried chipotle chile (also available at Casa Iberica or online here) to infuse the whole pot with a smoky, subtle heat that doesn't interfere too much with the different dishes I add my beans to. But throw in whatever you like; fresh bay leaves, ground coriander or a chunk of smoky bacon.

5. Skim that scum. Shortly after your beans come to the boil, a frothy scum often rises to the surface. You want to skim this off with a big spoon so that the texture and flavour of your beans and their liquid really sing. Once you turn down to simmer, check for more scum every so often and remove as necessary.

6. Add more water as needed and don't let the beans dry out. By the time the beans are tender and creamy, the water will have transformed into a thick black-purple sauce - you want to make sure there's enough of this. If you intend to puree or mash the beans, you may want a even little more liquid.

7. Taste! Cooking time depends on how long you soak and how fresh your beans are. These ones took just under two hours after an overnight soak, but there's only one way to find out if yours are done...

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