Foodie Tuesday: Sofrito, for Cuban-style black beans

This journey began with Versailles Cuban Food in Culver City, where I first fell in love with that magical combination of black beans and fluffy white rice.  Each by itself is pretty good, but together they become more than the sum of two parts.  Don't ask me why a Cuban place is named after a French landmark.  Just ask me how delicious their food is, and I'll give you an answer: VERY.

You can tell good black beans when you spoon them over a small pile of rice and they sort of just fall slowly over themselves in this luxurious mix of sauciness and mashiness.  And when you taste them, it's got this pleasingly soft mouthfeel and thickish texture, and the cumin starts to make happy little zings across your brain.  At least, that's what cumin does to MY brain.  Cumin is hands down my favorite spice, ever.  Who needs illegal drugs when there's cumin around?

Anyway, I've tried over the years to replicate that amazing flavor at home, with very little luck.  I remember the first time I bought a pound of dry black beans from the local Mexican market, feeling so proud of myself, only to be so disappointed when I tasted my first batch of beans and found them upsettingly sweet and nothing like Versailles' Cuban-style black beans in flavor or texture.

A friend from Jamaica tsk-tsked me and told me I should NEVER UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES put onions in with black beans.  No onions!  Only garlic, and lots of it!  But when I tried her method, it still didn't come close.  She also was the one who insisted that "plantains" be prounounced plantin's, as in, "I'm plantin' a garden."  I have never heard anyone else pronounce it this way, but it stuck with me.

More recently I was absolutely determined to find a really authentic recipe for cooking Cuban-style black beans.  I was dubious of most recipes that called for not only onions, but bell peppers, which is one of my least favorite vegetables.  That is, until my search led me to this series of how-to videos on YouTube, by Expert Village. Let me tell you, this is quite possibly the world's most infuriating how-to video, because what should be a 24-minute demonstration is inexplicably chopped into 1-minute segments that are not labeled in order (part 1 of 24, part 2 of 24, etc).  That meant sitting through this annoying 6-second introduction 24 times.

However, in my grim determination I watched all 24 one-minute clips, mostly out of order, and trusted my instincts to help me put the story together. And the secret I unearthed was this: SOFRITO.

I'd never heard of sofrito before, but I learned that it's the Spanish and Latin-American equivalent of mirepoix, an aromatic combination of super-finely chopped onions, bell peppers, and spices that serves as the base for many soups, stews, and sauces.  At last, here was the key to that hauntingly delicious flavor I'd experienced at Versailles.  Despite my reservations about bell peppers, after cooking them down with spices I realized that their bitter brashness balanced the sweetness of the onions well, and it is absolutely what pulled all the flavors together.  That, and a WHOLE BIG MESS OF CUMIN.
So my super dumbed down version of how to make Cuban-style black beans involves:
  • Putting your pre-soaked black beans (about a pound) on the stove to boil, on high, with a few big chunks of bell pepper, 1-2 bay leaves, and enough water to cover.  Optional: you can use chicken stock instead of water, but adjust your salt accordingly.
  • Processing about 1 bell pepper and 1 small onion along with 2 cloves garlic (optional) in your processor or with your nimble fingers and a sharp knife.
  • Adding the vegetables to a small fry pan along with a good amount of olive oil and spices (cumin, oregano, black pepper, garlic powder, about a teaspoon or tablespoon each depending on how much you're making) and salt (start with a cautious amount; you can always add more later). This is your sofrito.
  • Cook the sofrito on medium heat until it is nicely rendered down, stirring occasionally, about 20 min.  It should be dark greenish-brown and greasy-looking and very fragrant.
  • Check your beans.  When they are fat and swollen, and starting to crack open, they are ready to receive the sofrito.
  • Take the beans and sofrito off the heat.  Mash the beans a bit, leaving about half of the beans whole, then add the sofrito and mix.
  • Add a spoonful of sugar to the pot and mix.  THIS STEP IS CRUCIAL.
  • Add maybe a quarter-cup of red wine and a splash of vinegar.  This step is nice-to-have for additional flavor but not as crucial.
  • De-glaze the pan you used to cook sofrito with a little red wine; add everything to the pot of beans.  Also a nice-to-have but not crucial.
  • Return pot to heat and simmer on low, partially covered, for several hours until the soup is super thick and creamy and yummy.  Or move the whole mess to a slow cooker, set it, and forget it.  Check back to see if you need to adjust the amount of liquid, spices, or salt.
  • Serve with fluffy white Cuban rice and your choice of Cuban meaty deliciousness.
22 responses

For what it's worth, a sofrito is italian in origin. It literally means "cooked under". I begin most things with a sofrito of chopped onions and garlic or shallots and a reduction of white wine.

Thanks, Don!  Good info.  Maybe that's the key to a good bolognese too eh?
yummY, so yummy i could really go for that in my tummy.
i think of sofrito as having Spanish roots; it's critical to making a good paella!
That looks amazing! Sofrito is definitely the key to good bolognese too. Cooks Illustrated calls you to brown the carrot, celery and onion mix, add the meat mix, reduce with one cup of whole milk, reduce again with a cup of white or red wine (depending on what type of meat you're using) and then reduce one more time with pureed tomatoes. It's amazing and it also works if you want to make Lasagna Bolognese.

FYI, Versailles Manhattan Beach is incredible as well. I love the oxtail stew.

@mattblint Awesome, thanks for the method!  What sort of meat do you use?  I am really wanting to make a good bolognese one of these days.
I used 8oz of lean ground beef, 8oz of ground pork and 8oz of ground veal. With that mix cooks illustrated suggested using a dry white wine. Or you can use 24oz of lean ground beef and red wine. 

@Matt I've actually been thinking of doing a ragu (not sure if that is
the same or similar to a bolognese) from whole meat instead of ground
meat. And experience with that?
You could just buy the sofrito in a jar, should you desire.
Water, tomato paste, green peppers, soybean oil, modified food starch, dehydrated onions, textured vegetable oil, monosodium glutamate, natural flavoring, paprika, ctiric acid, garlic powder, oregano, black pepper.
Of course homemade is where it's at, but just because homemade
mayonnaise, sauerkraut, ice cream, yogurt, and whole-wheat bread
totally rock doesn't mean I've stopped buying them in stores. I
checked the sofrito mixes at my supermarket last night, and the
Maggi-brand version has no MSG.
You know, I stopped buying mayonnaise at the store because it actually is easier and more delicious to make at home with my stand mixer.  And if I had an ice cream or bread maker I'd stop buying those in the stores too... at least the regular stores =D
Good for you!
@Stephanie I've never made meat ragu; only vegetable. It's really good and my experience with it has been pretty stress-free. I use eggplant, onion and zucchini - saute in EVOO until the veggies are getting soft, add minced garlic and saute for another minute or so. Then I add hand-crushed, whole san marzano tomatoes (you can buy them crushed, but if you hand-crush them you'll get bigger pieces of tomato). Let that simmer down, add salt, pepper, oregano, basil and you'll get a nice thick ragu-like sauce. I've never followed a recipe per se, but this is as close to a ragu as I've gotten. The key to a thick sauce like ragu is either low heat over a long period of time or just not adding a lot of liquid to begin with (i.e. red wine).
@mattblint thanks so much for the tip.  though, man, i have been so worn out at work lately that I look at those instructions and think, "auuugh!  more work!"  If ever there is a Posterous meetup, clearly we need to have a potluck.
hi sl, i have a love of sofrito and beans that i have been experimenting with and lazing about with for a few years now. my current favorite super-fast low-energy iteration is to:
• sautee 1 green pepper, a few cloves of garlic, and a med sized onion in olive oil.
• then add a can of beans w/liquid (i get an organicy or healthy low-sodium kind so that the liquid is not disgusting).
• then i add a chopped pepper in adobo sauce (comes in these cute little cans, keeps forever) and
• let it simmer for 20 minutes or so.
• Then i add a splash of orange juice (fresh or from a box).
• AND THEN i whirl my immersion blender around in there for a little while.

DELISH. Serve with rice, garlicky greens (i like collards, kale or spinach), tostones con mojo, avocado, fresh lime and a salad if you are making a feast. Just rice is just fine too!

Thanks Steph!  It's interesting to cook it all first BEFORE processing.  I'll have to try it next time, but what is the main difference it makes? ha
You know, I stopped buying mayonnaise at the store because it actually is easier and more delicious to make at home with my stand mixer. And if I had an ice cream or bread maker I'd stop buying those in the stores too... at least the regular stores =D
Actually Sofrito isnt Italian it's Spanish, and as the recipe has traveled, it has evolved, changed from culture to culture.
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