Imagine a range of iconic European dishes missing the beans we associate with them. Think Cassoulet sans haricot beans, Spanish Capparrones without kidney beans, Pasta e fagioli devoid of borlotti’s and Ribollita minus cannellini. All of these dishes would be very, very different had the Spanish not bought back from the Americas the family of “wild beans” that also includes the flageolet, navy, pinto and black turtle.
Of course these were not the only foods to come from the new world, potatoes, tomatoes, peppers and corn also became staples around the globe, but it is the cheap and abundant protein in beans that sets them apart. Consumed in large quantities where plant based diets dominate they are often called “poor mans meat”. However in the wealthier “new world” by comparison we eat very little with our abundant and cheap animal protein. In Australia at least, most of the beans consumed are of the value added or canned variety with one famous brand of baked beans owning the lions share and in fact all too often dry beans are seen as an inconvenience food.
Subsequently, many people miss out as the best bean dishes get their distinctive flavors from how they are prepared, seasoned and slowly cooked. Of course this takes a little forward planning, but it’s more than worth the effort. It also provides the chance to strip the beans of some of their flatulent qualities. Simply put, pre soaking beans overnight or for a few hours at least and then discarding the soaking water not only hastens cooking but also removes a good amount of the fermentable sugars that provide beans with the reputation of being the “musical fruit”…
In Central and South America where beans are often the staple protein they take this process a little further, cooking their beans with a dried herb called epazote and in Japan, kombu is often added to the cooking water and the enzymes in this seaweed reputedly break down these sugars mentioned above. As for cooking times, which is the reason most people site for not using dry beans, there are a couple of very easy ways around this.
A slow cooker will cook beans without any care or attention while you sleep, work or play but you can also drastically reduce times to under an hour if you need to by simply using a pressure cooker. However, there are a few things to note that will also affect both the cooking times and finished tenderness in beans and these are salt, sugar, and acidity. All of these will tend to harden beans in the early part of the cooking process and so most commonly, these ingredients are only added once beans have reached tenderness.
Of course there are always exceptions to rule and in Latin America and the Caribbean, cooking beans with salted meat is a common treatment. These dishes are often a little firmer in texture and stand up to prolonged cooking without dissolving into overcooked mush. Importantly the bean of choice for most of these dishes is the relatively unknown (at least in Australia) black turtle bean and of all the beans mentioned in this blog this has to be my absolute favourite.
I first came across them a few years ago as an ingredient in a version of the Punjabi classic “Kali Dal” where they replaced the regular “Rajma” or kidney beans, lending a deeper richer colour. However their real home is the Americas from Louisiana, throughout the Caribbean, Mexico and Central America where they take their place in many national or regional specialties from black bean burritos, tamales and “Frijoles Negras” to the Cuban classic “Moros y Christianos”.
What makes them special is their dense, meaty texture, that and the rich dark gravy they create. This is especially so in the dishes that are not purely vegetarian, but rather combine cheaper cuts of meat like pickled pork hocks and salt beef where very long slow cooking is needed to tenderize the meat. A great example of this would be one of Brazils national dishes, Feijoada, a supremely rich and meaty stew only needing a little rice and maybe a side of greens to be a complete meal.
The following recipe for braised black beans is simplicity at its best, of course it doesn’t have to be this simple as these complex flavours work well, tricked up “restaurant style” like the image below with some grilled or roasted meat and a creamy root vegetable puree but the recipe is a great base well suited to a cold winters night like were having right now.
Enjoy, remember they’re good for your heart!
Braised Black Beans
125g dried black beans
2 cups water
2 cloves garlic – peeled and crushed
½ onion chopped
500g pickled pork hocks
½ chorizo sausage – diced
½ teaspoon paprika
½ teaspoon chili powder
1 teaspoon cumin – ground
½ bay leaf
2 cups white stock – chicken or pork
Seasoning to taste
- Place black beans and water in large pot and soak overnight or cover with water and boil for 3 minutes. Turn off heat and let stand covered for 1 hour.
- Add the rest of the ingredients, cover and simmer until the meat and beans are just tender.
- Serve as below with some rice and steamed greens as a simple meal or shred the meat through the beans and use it as the base for something altogether grander as above.