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.