It’s the end of January and I haven’t slept in my own bed in over six weeks. In fact, I don’t know if I’ve slept in the same bed for more than three nights in a row in the past six weeks. It’s been a cold winter so far, even here in the South, and I feel myself reaching back in my memory for the comforting foods that I’ve had all my life, that have sustained and warmed and satisfied.
Black beans are one of my very favorite things to eat. With rice, they have been a comfort meal for me through thick and thin. I remember my mom making black bean and smoked turkey chili on a wood stove when Hurricane Opal buried us under oak limbs and power lines. I’ve been making my own versions of black beans and rice, adapted to the season, throughout my adult life. With a golden lace of olive oil on the surface, a chile-infused pot of black beans warms and fills the belly without weighing the body down with regret. It is a virtuous indulgence, to me anyway. An inky, brothy bowlful makes me feel at home wherever I am.
Black Beans and Rice
Soak 1 pound of black beans overnight covered with lots of water.
Or, you can do a quick soak by covering the beans with plenty of water in a pot, bringing it all to a boil for about 2 minutes and then allowing it to sit off the heat, covered, for about an hour.
2 -3 roasted and peeled poblanos
2 serranos, minced
1 chipotle, either dried or canned in adobo (if you want a smoky flavor)
Or, a red bell pepper, roasted and peeled (I have used the jarred kind)
1 large onion, diced
4 cloves garlic, minced
2 teaspoons ground cumin
1 teaspoon Mexican oregano, crumbled between your fingers
Pinch of thyme
1 bay leaf
Chicken broth, low salt or salt free, or water
Kombu (optional) or nopalitos (also optional, and I would get them already de-spiked and sliced)
Drain the soaked beans. Re-cover with water or chicken broth (or a combination) by about 2 inches. It is important not to salt the beans at this point, because salt can make it difficult to get the beans to soften. Add the whole piece of kombu to the liquid, if you are using that. Cover and bring the pot to a low simmer and cook for about 30 minutes. Test a bean for tenderness. They should still have a bit of “bite” to them when the aromatics are added. One way to test is to smush a bean between your fingers; it should still give a little resistance at this point, but not feel like a pebble. Keep the liquid covering the beans and continue to check every 10 minutes or so. When the beans are soft, fish out the kombu, cut it up into small pieces and return the bits to the pot.
Meanwhile, heat the oil in a skillet over medium heat. Saute’ the onions until most of the liquid has cooked out and they are tender but not brown, salting them with a couple of generous pinches of salt. Add the garlic and the spices, stirring it all together to toast the spices. Add the chopped peppers and nopalitos if that’s how you decide to roll, and cook just until the serranos and cactus begin to soften.
Scrape the hot vegetables into the pot with the beans and add more liquid if needed to keep everything covered. Simmer very low- what you want to do at this point is to infuse the beans as they finish softening; a higher temperature will just bash them to mush. After the flavors have all mingled for 10 minutes or so, taste a spoonful and see if you want a little more salt. Continue to simmer until the beans have reached your preferred tenderness. Serve with a scoop of rice.
I like the flavor of the chilis I listed but have used just red bell peppers and jalapeños before. Peeling the larger peppers like poblano and bells is important because otherwise there are bits of the cellophane-like outer skin floating annoyingly around amongst the beans. Nothing tasty about getting that stuck in the back of your throat. And if you don’t have any Mexican oregano, which seems a little sagey-er, use a little pinch of Italian oregano instead.
Kristen’s boys called this recipe “Special Sauce.”
It’s kind of like a raita, adding a cool crisp contrasting flavor to a sometimes spicy meal:
About 1 cup sour cream
1 minced cucumber (scrape out the seeds first if they are big)
3 minced whole scallions
Stir together and allow the flavors to mingle for 20 minutes or so. Add a spoonful to the beans and rice. It is so, so good.