Black Turtle Beans (Phaseolus vulgaris) are thought to have originated in Southern Mexico and Central America, where they have been used in cooking for about 7,000 years. The beans have an almost meaty texture and contain a lot of flavour – they are quite filling and nutritional. Commonly black beans are cooked as soups and stews or refried (slow cooked, mashed and then fried with garlic, chilli, lard, etc.) as a side dish or rolled in a tortilla to make a burrito.
This week I received a terracotta cazuela with lid, direct from Andalucia (many thanks to Chica Andaluza). I was reminded of living in Barcelona, 25 years ago, where one of my flatmates (Juan Carlos, from Ecuador) had a pot just like this and cooked black beans two or three times a week. I went straight out and bought a pound of beans!
As an aside, I was in the Museum of London last week, where they had Roman terracotta, 2,000 years old and almost identical to these cazuelas, still very much in use all over Spain today.
Black Bean stew (serves 3):
1lb dried black beans
2 slices of smoked streaky bacon (chopped)
1 large onion (chopped)
half a red pepper (chopped)
6 pieces of garlic (finely chopped)
a small bunch of coriander (chopped)
1 teaspoon of cumin (ground)
1 teaspoon of dried oregano
2 bay leaves
a large squirt of anchovy paste
1 pint of chicken stock
a dessertspoon of sherry vinegar
a splash of olive oil
Black beans need to be soaked overnight (for about 8 hours), which suited me because the cazuela also needed a soaking to season it (see my post here for seasoning terracotta). They should be covered by at least 1 inch of water and topped up if necessary.
Before cooking, the beans should be drained and thoroughly rinsed with cold water.
I start by making a sofrito – a base of chopped onion fried in olive oil, with garlic, smoked streaky bacon, red pepper, freshly chopped coriander (cilantro), oregano and black pepper. The bean stew is ideally cooked in a pot with a lid – cast iron casseroles are excellent for this too. I used a diffuser under the cazuela which is good for heat distribution, but it also helps to stop the ingredients sticking to the pot.
While the vegetables and bacon are frying, warm a teaspoon of cumin seeds in a frying pan until their natural aroma increases. This takes a coupe of minutes – don’t cook or burn them. When the smell of cumin becomes pervasive, grind the seeds up with a mortar and pestle and add them to the sofrito along with 2 bay leaves.
When the sofrito has softened and become coated in oil, stir in the black beans and a pint of home made chicken stock. If a pint is not sufficient, add some water. Simmer the beans for several hours with the lid on. Do add a little more water if necessary, but do not add salt, vinegar or any other acid ingredients until the beans become tender – apparently salty acidic ingredients inhibit the cooking process and therefore should be used towards the end of cooking.
After about 2 hours of simmering the beans should start to soften and from then on the sauce will thicken and seasoning can be added to taste. I used anchovy paste instead of salt and sherry vinegar for sour flavouring (once stirred in, give the vinegar about 15 minutes to cook in) . In Cuba this would be about the right consistency for black bean soup served with rice, chopped onion, sour cream etc.
From 2 hours onwards, regular stirring is important to stop the beans sticking and burning. I cooked the stew for a further hour, until it became thick and sticky. At this point the beans were starting to fall apart, turning into refried beans without the frying. I ate my stew with sour cream and grated cheddar – a large bowl was enough, they were so filling!