When winter makes the outside world a brittle and unfriendly place, we prefer to stay in the house — ideally beside a fireplace or in the congenial glow of a wood-stove, the air filled with the aroma of slowly cooking foods. Nothing comforts us like the foods we knew as children, the foods our grandparents knew as children, foods steeped in family tradition.
Those foods became traditional because they met some important criteria: they were made from ingredients that were readily available in the winter; they were best prepared when, as a fringe benefit, the cooking process could warm the entire house; and they were completely satisfying, both delicious and filling.
Two ingredients perfectly met all of the requirements: dried beans and cured — or smoked — meats. Boston Baked Beans are certainly classic here in the Northeast — made with navy beans, salt pork and either molasses or the locally produced maple syrup (all staples that stored well). Originally baked in clay bean-pots, partially buried in the coals and ashes of the hearth — those pleasantly bulging pots work just as well in a modern oven.
New England’s Yankees were certainly not the only ones to recognize the pleasures of dried legumes and cured meats. Consider the southerner’s Hoppin’ John (an essential part of many a southerner New Years Day dinner). It’s made with black-eyed peas, rice and either bacon or ham. Split Pea Soup — made with dried green, or yellow, peas and smoked ham hocks — was the pease porridge in a nursery rhyme that dates back to the middle ages. French peasants created Cassoulet — a savory baked dish of large white beans, which, depending on the products of local farms, could contain confit (meat of geese or ducks, salted and preserved in their own luscious fat), chunks of pork or mutton, whatever game might be in season, garlicky Toulouse sausages, or any combination of those meats. Feijoada is a Portuguese stew of black beans and various preserved meats, such as smoked tongue and spicy Choriço or Linguiça sausage. The thick Italian soup, Pasta e Fagioli, consists of beans, small pasta and vegetables — its flavor deepened by ham hocks (or, even better, the hock and bones from proscuitto — or bits of pancetta, tangy rolled and air-dried unsmoked bacon).
Each of these bean dishes began as an inexpensive way to banish the discomfort of winter — while utilizing whatever was left in the season’s limited larder. They more than succeeded, literally warming their way into our hearts. They are classic comfort foods.
Moors and Christians (Moros y Cristianos)
These are fractious times, and a shared dish of black beans and rice might help to ease some ethnic/religious tensions (even if the dish’s name suggests an earlier intolerant era: the thirteenth century, when the Moors were driven out of Spain).
8 oz. dried black beans
1 medium onion, peeled
1 green pepper, halved, seeds removed
1 cubanelle (or spicier Anaheim) pepper, halved, seeds removed
1 ham hock (optional, see note)
2 cups long-grain rice
2 Tbsp. olive oil
4 ounces bacon, diced optional, see note)
1 onion, finely chopped (about 1 cup)
1 red bell pepper, seeded, and finely chopped
1 tsp. cumin
1 tsp. oregano
1 bay leaf
2 Tbsp. sherry vinegar, or to taste
to taste salt and freshly-ground pepper
1. Carefully pick through the beans, removing any pebbles or damaged beans. Rinse the black beans, then drain in a strainer. Combine all bean ingredients in a heavy pot. Cover with 2 1/2 quarts water, and bring to a boil. Reduce heat, and simmer for about two hours (the beans should be tender but not mushy).
2. Drain the beans, discarding the vegetables and ham hock (if used), but reserve the cooking liquid. Dry the pot for next use.
3. Rinse the rice with cold water until the water runs clear, and drain in a strainer. Heat the oil, over medium heat, in the dried pot. Sauté bacon until lightly browned (see note). Add vegetables, herbs and spices, cooking until the onion is soft but not browned.
4. Add the rice and stir. Add the beans and four cups of the bean cooking liquid. Add sherry vinegar, salt and pepper. Mix gently (to avoid mashing the beans), taste and adjust the liquid’s flavor with more sherry vinegar, and other seasonings, if desired. Cook, uncovered, until the liquid is nearly absorbed a (you should see small craters appear on top of the rice). Gently fluff the rice, cover tightly, reduce heat to the lowest level, and cook, 20 minutes.
5. Remove from the heat, uncover and allow it to rest for at least 10 minutes, and serve.
Note: If you’re Jewish, Muslim, vegetarian, and/or vegan, you can substitute some smoked paprika (or chipotle, for a spicier dish) and a little extra olive oil for pork products.
Recipe adapted from:
Presilla, Maricel Gran Cocina Latina: The Food of Latin America.
Gary Allen’s most recent book is Can It!: The Pleasures and Perils of Preserving Foods, his third book from Reaktion. You can find more of his speculations about things he has been known to (but really shouldn’t) put in his mouth — his own foot being a prime example of the latter — on his website: onthetable.us