Elegant and inexpensive, black beans are the little black dress of the kitchen. Treat them right and they’ll reward you with musky richness and enormous depth of flavor. I love them, and I almost always have a pot sitting in my refrigerator. In the morning I’ll add a fried egg and a splash of salsa for a perfect breakfast. My favorite almost-instant lunch is a rich, cheesy black bean burrito. And at night I toss them into stews, casseroles and chili to make a good dinner better.
If you’re wondering why I’m so enamored of these basic blacks, it can only mean that you’ve been cursed with boring beans. Here are a few ways to ensure that never happens again.
- Stale beans won’t cook. Or at least they won’t get soft. Be sure to buy your beans from a place that does a brisk business. If you end up with year-old beans, you’ll be standing by the stove for hours, cursing. (You could, of course, buy canned beans, but why would you? You get so much more flavor by starting from scratch, and if you plan ahead it’s a mere moment’s work.)
- Save your bacon drippings and add them to the pot (or simply throw in a bit of good lard). You’ll be amazed at what a difference a small amount of pig fat makes; if you have the drippings from Mangalitsa bacon, so much the better.
- Add a sprig of epazote. It not only adds a musky, mysterious flavor, it also has carminative properties (if you don’t know what that means, look it up here).
- Add some chopped raw onions and a couple of cloves of garlic to the pot right at the beginning. If you like heat, chop up a chile or two and throw that in as well.
- Do not add salt until the end.
- When the beans have become tender and softly yielding, add a shot of cream sherry and a few splashes of good soy sauce. The sherry adds a mellow sweetness, the soy a saline punch, and together they coax the shy little bean into revealing its sassy character.
- Cooked black beans will keep in the refrigerator for a week. But these are so delicious that they’ll never last that long.
Better Basic Black Beans
Pick over a cup of black beans and soak them overnight. Drain them in the morning, add 3 to 4 cups of water (the water should be a good inch above the beans in the pot), a chopped onion, a sprig of epazote and a few tablespoons of lard or bacon drippings. Bring to a boil, cover, turn the heat down and simmer for a couple of hours until the beans are tender. Remove the epazote, stir in a very healthy glug of cream sherry and a few splashes of soy sauce. Taste for seasoning. Now add as much salt and pepper as you like.
My Favorite Quick Burritos
Thinly slice some Cheddar cheese onto a flour tortilla, wrap it in a paper towel and zap it in the microwave for about 30 seconds, until the cheese melts. Pry the tortilla open, spoon in some warmed black beans and some freshly chopped tomatoes, chiles, cilantro and onions. Roll up and serve with hot sauce.
More of Ruth's tips: