Span-ish Black Beans
By: Angela Prosper
My mother never measured anything when it came to her cooking. She never wrote a single recipe down and aside from a few staples, she wasn’t loyal to any brands or special ingredients but she was always in the kitchen. If we needed to use something up and the flavors were right, it didn’t matter the method. If it was missing an herb here or there it was just fine, as long as it tasted good. Her recipes were all from taste, smell, and texture, something I could never fully appreciate as a child or even as a teen but it would become so ingrained into my personality, so natural a process, that I still cook this way today. Was it osmosis? Genetics? Or was I unknowingly paying attention all these years? I will never know for sure.
Growing up a Puerto Rican girl but never really knowing much if anything about my culture, I can easily see how whole ethnic communities could assimilate and disappear simply because they didn’t write anything down but there is more to it than written instruction. There is something special about making food that you learn from watching, eating, and doing that holds on to this cultural heritage despite 1,000s of miles and hundreds of years of passage.
It’s buried in the taste buds and our ancient indigenous blood somehow. Stuck like a memory you never really had yourself. When you cook this way, your eyes already know the exact caramel color you need to make the perfect roux, your nose catches the nutty scent of brown butter before it ever has a chance of burning, your hands can feel the moment when your pasta dough has stopped fighting and relaxes into becoming the perfect pasta, and your taste buds sense with certainty, just how much salt and acid to add to your pot of black beans.
My mother never taught me these things directly, but her food did.
This recipe was submitted to the National Museum of Women in the Arts for their 2021 show, RECLAMATION: Recipes, Remedies, and Rituals.
Beans and rice should be able to stand on their own as a dish and this recipe does that. Soaked overnight in saltwater, half the liquid saved for the cooking. Fresh oregano in the boil along with garlic that is turning green and the ends of my onions I have just used for sofrito. Nothing is wasted. Timing, layers, flavor, and at the end, acid in the form of tomato paste, capers, and olives make these beans, unlike anything you have tried before. Done wrong and you have tough beans that will refuse to work for you. Done right and you have creamy flavorful beans that don’t take much effort. It is not quite Puerto Rican, it is more “New Yorican” but it is my go-to side for Spanish and Latin dishes.
- 1 lb dried black beans
- 8 cups water
- 1-2 tbsp coarse salt
- 2 tbsp olive oil
- 2 lbs smoked, bone in ham steak cut into 1 inch cubes
- 2 large Spanish onions diced (reserve scraps for beans)
- 6-8 cloves Garlic minced (reserve scraps for beans)
- 2 medium Green Bell Peppers diced (reserve scraps for beans)
- 1 6 ounce can Tomato paste
- 1 bundle Fresh Cilantro leaves and stems, chopped plus some leaves saved for garnish
- Salt and Pepper to taste
- 10-12 Manzanilla Olives pitted and stuffed
- 1 3.5 ounce jar Capers used to taste
- 2 Limes juice and zest for garnish
- 8-10 sprigs fresh oregano plus 1 tablespoon chopped for Sofrito
- 2 bay Leaves
Step by Step Instructions
Sofrito: Drizzle some olive oil into a large and deep saute pan or dutch oven on medium heat, add the ham steak and brown lightly on all sides, about 5-7 minutes, then remove from the pan and set aside.
Reduce the heat to medium-low, add in the onions and saute until translucent, about 10 minutes.
Add in the garlic and stir until fragrant then add in the bell peppers and chopped fresh oregano and stir until tender, about 10 minutes.
Once the veggies are just starting to caramelize, add the entire can of tomato paste, the browned ham steak, and chopped fresh cilantro to the pot and saute until fragrant and the tomato paste has darkened slightly.
Turn off the heat and add a pinch of salt and cracked black pepper to taste. It should be saltier than you would normally like on its own with a rich intense flavor from the tomato paste. This sofrito will be cut in half. Half for the beans and the rest can be refrigerated, frozen, OR added to white rice.
Cooking the Beans: Drain the beans (saving half the liquid) and rinse them well before adding them to a large stockpot with 6 to 8 cups of fresh water, the saved soaking water, salt, bay leaves, oregano sprigs, and the scraps leftover from making sofrito.
Bring to a boil then reduce the heat to medium, cover, and let cook for about 2 hours until done. Check them each hour to be sure they have not split on you. They should be creamy on the inside but still hold their shape in the spoon.
It is very important that your beans are fully cooked because we are now adding acid to the pot from the sofrito…
Add sofrito mixture to the pot and bring back up to a boil, then reduce the heat, stirring to combine and thicken. The sofrito helps thicken the beans even more and adds wonderful flavor.
Add salt and pepper to taste and finish with olives, capers, and a bit of the olive and caper brine to taste. The beans should be well seasoned, thick like a nice stew with a touch of bright acidity from the sofrito and the brine.
Serve as a side with Spanish rice or on its own, topped with fresh cilantro, lime juice or lime zest.
this recipe is delicious with our without the meat it calls for and I have made it vegan several times to meet the needs of guests who don’t eat meat. Made with love and memories.