B for Beans

Beans… they come in all colors, shapes and sizes. They have been a staple for centuries and probably are humans’ earliest cultivated food, even before grains.

Domesticated more than 7000 years in southern Mexico and Peru, they spread to other regions of America through native trade routes. Early explorers from Europe took these beans back home with them and cultivated them, spreading them all over the world. In many instances they were renamed and returned to the Americas, adding to the plenty.

Black beans, kidney beans, pinto beans, lima, cannellini, garbanzo… the varieties of beans could be interchanged in many recipes, especially in the case of soups and stews, though there will be differences in the flavor.

Beans belong to the Fabaceae family, the fruits of which are called legumes. They are one of the main sources of protein for most vegetarians and vegans.

Among the beans, my favorite is black beans with their creamy texture and fragrant broth. They are also called turtle beans, caviar criollo and frijoles negro. They are mainly grown in South America, the country of Brazil producing most of the harvest. A black bean and beef stew named ‘feijoada’ is the national dish of Brazil. 

For cooking, you can either select canned (cooked) or dried black beans. If using dried, you have to rinse and soak them for 8 to 10 hours, preferably overnight. In case you are short of time, you can bring a pot of water to boil, add the beans and boil for a minute or two. Set aside covered for an hour and you are ready to go.

A trick to enhance the flavor of beans is to soak them in stock and use the same stock to cook them. No, the salt in the stock will not make them tough; it is acidity that makes beans tough. So if you are adding anything acidic to a bean recipe like vinegar, tomatoes or lime juice do make sure that it is added after the beans are cooked.

If you are cooking with an older batch of beans which tend to be tougher, you may want to add a bit of baking soda to the mixture to tenderize the beans.

Dried black beans can be stored indefinitely, if you keep them in a sealed, airtight container in a cool, dry place. However they will start to lose their moisture and get harder after a while, taking longer to cook. 

One cup of dried black beans yield about three cups of cooked beans.

Beans in general, have a bad reputation for causing flatulence. What happens is, gas is produced in the process of gut bacteria breaking down and digesting some of the carbohydrates in the beans. This depends on a person’s intestinal health and the specific bacteria in the gut. Some people can eat all the beans they want without any bad effect while some others have to be real careful. Know thyself, is the best solution here. 

Because of their ability to bind nitrogen to the soil, they are sometimes used for soil amendment as they make the ground in which they’re grown richer.

Black Bean Soup

Ingredients

  • ½ pound smoked bacon
  • 1½ cups finely chopped onions
  • 1½ cups finely chopped celery
  • 1½ cups finely diced carrots
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 tablespoon finely minced garlic
  • 1¼ teaspoons dried thyme
  • 4 tablespoons ground cumin
  • 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 tablespoon dried oregano, crumbled
  • 3 tablespoons tomato paste
  • 16 cups chicken broth
  • 1 pound black beans, about 3 cups
  • 6 tablespoons freshly squeezed lime juice
  • ¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • Salt to taste

Directions

  • 12 hours ahead of cooking, wash rinse, and soak the black beans in salted water.
  • When ready to start cooking, cut the bacon into 1/2 inch pieces. 
  • Smear the bottom of a largish cooking pot with oil and heat on medium. Add the bacon pieces and cook, stirring often, till the bacon is browned. 
  • Add the chopped onions, celery, and carrots. Mix well and continue cooking. 
  • When they start to wilt, add the bay leaf, thyme, half of the cumin, black pepper, oregano, and garlic. Stir to combine and continue to cook for five minutes, making sure the herbs do not burn.
  • Add the tomato paste. Mix well. Add the chicken broth, raise the heat to high and bring to a boil.
  • Drain the soaked beans and add them to the broth. When the mixture comes to a boil, reduce heat to medium and cook, stirring occasionally to make sure the soup has enough liquid. If you feel there is not enough liquid, add more broth or just warm water. 
  • Continue cooking till the beans are soft, about 1 hour. Mash some of the beans into the soup for added thickness.
  • Stir in the lime juice, cayenne pepper, salt, cilantro and remaining cumin. 
  • Ladle the soup into individual soup bowls and serve with garnishes of your choice.