Cooking and eating through a new culture

Beans, beans, the magical fruit…

Beans are pretty much ubiquitous in cuisine. Every corner of the globe has their bean recipes and traditions.  They are naturally low in total fat, contain no saturated fat or cholesterol, and provide important nutrients such as fiber, protein, calcium, iron,folic acid and potassium and lets face it, who doesn’t like cheap and easy?

The common bean is thought to have originated in southern Mexico and Central America over 7,000 years ago, and evidence of its use has been found in excavations of prehistoric dwellings. Based on some of the looks I get when I ask about the beans I am eating, the family recipes have been around that long too. For the time being I am going to talk about black beans, Phaseolus vulgaris, also known as turtle beans, black turtle beans, black Spanish beans, Tampico beans, and Venezuelan beans. (They’re not the same beans as those used in Oriental cuisines. Fermented black beans and similar items are made with black soybeans.) This is my quest for perfect gallo pinto, otherwise known as black beans and rice.

Think about your normal stateside grocery store for a sec. You may get to an aisle that is all cereal, or soda, or pet food. Here is Costa Rica there will be an aisle for beans. Not canned beans either, but bags and bags of dried beans. So forget the metallic tasting crap from a can, dried beans are easier than you think, and three times cheaper.

Beans require a little fore thought since they need to be soaked, over night or for at least six hours. I have read and used the quick soak method touted in the Joy and in other recipes, but honestly a well soaked bean tastes better to me. Be sure to remove any foreign objects and any floaters. After the time alloted, drain and rinse the beans. Put the beans in a heavy-bottomed, oven-safe pot. A wide pot, not a deep and narrow one, is best for cooking beans; you want the beans to cook evenly without getting crushed. Cover with two inches of cold water and bring to a boil. Skim any foam off the top and lower the heat to a gentle simmer. Now, if you are pretty savvy in the kitchen and have some home-made beef or chicken broth, you can add that with the water. Just know that salty broths may slow the cooking time.

At this point, your beans are ready for your personal touch. Add fat. I don’t mean a drizzle of olive oil or plop of butter, I mean real fat. Pork works great: couple big chunks of bacon, or rendered pork fat is divine, although in a pinch I have used chicken fat and it hasn’t been bad. Don’t sissy out here and give me that “Oh, my arteries!” crap. Your high blood pressure is do more to your lack of exercise and stressful job than bacon. And let me add, a hormone free, open range hog is not only humane, but has higher levels of vitamin E, healthy Omega-3 fatty acids,and many other nutrients than conventionally raised pork. (stateside I had access to this, but at the moment I am hunting for a Costa Rican farm…but that’s another article)

I like to add a couple of whole peeled cloves of garlic, a bay leaf and cilantro. Carrots, celery and onion are options as well and also sweeten the beans. Red peppers are in season here now so I usually chop one up and toss it in too. A whole jalapeno, or similar hot pepper will certainly spice up the beans. Acidic ingredients like tomatoes or vinegar need to be added at the end since they can prevent the beans from softening. Rafa’s mom adds epazote and some believe that counters the gasy side effects, but for me the taste is rather strong. Besides, Rafa works all day so I can fart freely.

Cook until the beans are tender. Sample several beans before you make this determination; they may cook unevenly. Beans may take anywhere from 40 minutes to two and a half hours to cook, depending on the type, how long the bean has been in storage, the altitude, and the hardness of the water. Check them as they cook. If the water level has fallen below the beans, add boiling water to cover. If you find you have extra water left over from your cooked beans, save it! It is a fantastic addition to soups and stews, giving them a round mellow flavor. I freeze it in cubes. For true gallo pinto, that liquid is added to the white rice. Salt last while your beans are cooling. Beans absorb salt slowly, so keep checking them and add to your liking.

Yes, that is my fridge to the right

Now, I may have trotted into town and thrown down a kick ass chayote dish, but my gallo pinto still needs work. Dinners usually get rave reviews, but my gallo pinto only elicits a “Meh…” from Rafa. I’ll watch him destroy a plate of it at Sunday breakfasts at his parents house and wonder what I am missing. He may not admit it, but I KNOW he scoots over there weekday mornings too. His mom heaping huge portions of gallo pinto on his plate with a smile and thinking, “You ain’t no Tica yet, Gringa.”


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