Years and years ago my local congregation held a Mexican-themed potluck. I’m not talking about one of those discomfiting frat parties where everyone comes dressed like Speedy Gonzalez; this was more like large scale taco night. Potluck dishes were supposed to be Mexican or at least Mexican-adjacent, and we had a members of the congregation who were from Mexico share some traditional music and that sort of thing. It was mostly an excuse to get together and eat, and both the food and the company were good. I brought two dishes to the potluck. The first, Oaxacan chicken tacos, were maybe a little bit too complicated for a potluck. They mostly went uneaten. But my black beans won a prize for best side dish; surprising because there wasn’t all that much to them. I made them old-school Mexican style, with lard, sazon, and a little sprig of epazote. I’d like to think it was my eye for authenticity that won me the prize, but it was probably the MSG.
But there’s a lot more going on with Cuban black beans, and it’s a cuisine with which I’m less familiar. This particular recipe, adapted from Buen Provecho – a cookbook prepared by Latin American AT&T Employees – flavors the beans with a simple sofrito. Prior to making this recipe I’d never knowingly made a sofrito so I poked around on the internet to figure out what I was supposed to be doing. There are myriad variations on a basic sofrito, but it’s usually onions, mild peppers, and other aromatics finely chopped and braised in oil. It’s used as an all purpose seasoning for stews and beans and rice and pretty much anything else you can think of. This particular recipe calls for peppers, garlic, and onions with a little bit of cumin and cider vinegar. I don’t have much love for green bell peppers so I substituted a large, mild pasilla instead. I hope the good people of Cuba will forgive me.
My knowledge of Cuban cuisine is limited to local restaurants and a couple of family friends. The traditional pairing for frijoles negros con sofrito would be simply stewed meats with rice and plantains, but don’t feel bound by tradition. The recipes in Buen Provecho were submitted by people from all over the Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking world, from Chile to New Jersey. Cuisines range from Mexican favorites to traditional Basque food to Mexican-Chinese fried rice, and they all seem right at home in the same cookbook. So if you end up serving these delicious black beans with Mexican enchiladas or an Americanized taco salad no judgment. Good food is good food.
For cooking the beans:
- 1 lb dry black beans
- 1 bay leaf
For the sofrito
- ¾ cup extra virgin olive oil
- 1 sweet onion (finely chopped)
- 1 pasilla pepper (finely chopped)
- 1 ½ tsp garlic (finely chopped)
- 2 tsp ground cumin
- 2-3 tbsp apple cider vinegar
For soaking and cooking the beans:
- Cover black beans with water, about an inch or two above the beans. Soak overnight. Remove any beans that float to the top of the water.
- Drain and cover with fresh water, about an inch or two above the beans. Bring to a boil then cover and simmer for around 2 hours, until beans are soft and starting to crack.
For the sofrito:
- While the beans are simmering, make the sofrito. Heat the olive oil over low heat. Add the chopped onions, garlic, and pepper and cook for 8-10 minutes, until soft. If the onion starts to brown your temperature is too high - turn it down. Stir in cumin and vinegar.
- Stir the sofrito into the black bean mixture and add a large bay leaf. Cook, uncovered, for another 45 minutes, stirring occasionally, until beans are soft and skin is cracked. Add water as needed to keep the beans covered in liquid.
- Remove the bay leaf. Add salt and pepper to taste and serve.
If you are pressed for time or can’t be bothered with fresh black beans you may substitute four 15 oz cans of low-sodium black beans instead. Rinse the beans and add to the pot along with one cup of fresh water, a bay leaf and the sofrito. Heat, covere over medium-low heat for about 45 minutes.