Why I could never get black beans to taste like they do in Cuban restaurants was another mystery of life. I thought water and beans, no salt until they’re cooked, or maybe even broth and beans, was enough.

I was weaned in Puerto Rico on cafe con leche and rice and beans, you comprehend, so this is a matter of real just-post-mommy-comfort-food, if not precisely the iconic red kidney beans and rice I was fed, along with all the other Puerto Rican babies, when the time came to let my mother off the hook. I had vainly searched, at least since the 1970s, for a cookbook of Caribbean food. You understand that none exists which could evoke the latitude of my first memory, which is of lying in my mother’s arms in the rocking chair in San Juan, looking out the window, seeing the billions of stars twinkling robustly, and thinking that the robust throbbing tones of the tree frogs was the sound the stars made. Proust asserts, I suppose, that there is such a cookbook, and all the Cambodians I know spent the genocide years, when they had as little as a half a cup of rice a day to eat, sitting around the campfire discussing pork stir-fried with garlic and lotus root.

Me, on the beach, in San Juan.

I have the 1970 Time-Life Foods of the World Caribbean cookbook, and can remember the disappointment with which I regarded, for example, the two-page spread of the Jamaican chef Lucille Tyson making a piece montee out of pumpkin, shrimp, and coconut milk in a chapter called “Tourism: Mother of Culinary Invention”. She is photographed making Cinderella’s coach and coachmen out of a pumpkin and some shrimp, for which she won a big prize.

Ms. Lucille Tyson

Then there was — I recall this was a feature of a lot of Michael Field’s/Time Life’s approach to cooking, French technique and the Gentleman Gourmet’s addition of vodka to every possible dish — like 20 pages of rum drinks. Got it. Then there was the essentially dreary slave flavor of things like breadfruit vichyssoise vs. memories of badly butchered curried goat. I’m sure breadfruit vichyssoise is delicious and it’s what you’d do if you had breadfruit to eat every day of the year. Maybe.

The Foods of the Caribbean Islands

Then I discovered Steven Raichlen’s Miami Spice. First of all, he loves south Florida and eats everywhere, from Little Haiti in Miami, down the Keys. He, unlike Time Life, does genuine grassroots cooking anthropology. He asks for recipes when someone else has done a good job, instead of applying culinary-ass school principles to delicious poor white and poor black people food.

He rejiggers the traditional recipes so that they taste good, and not depressing. A lot of grassroots Caribbean cookbooks are of the stone soup genre, which would be valuable were I to live there and cook foraged food over a brazier made out of an old oil can. I did that for a year after the weaning, on a boat with my parents. Another early memory is looking down upon my mother through the hatch, watching her cook sausages over a Primus stove. No fish caught that day, I guess.

Then, while providing real insight into and technique for the soul food stuff, Raichlen takes those amazing flavors — as well as the Florida cracker cuisine to which I am devoted — to a logical upscale conclusion, like baby back ribs with guava barbecue sauce or swamp cabbage (hearts of palm to you, Yankee carpet bagger) with pancetta and cream. How is this different from breadfruit vichyssoise, less horribly colonial, less depressing working for the Yankee dollar? Because it’s about the breadfruit, and not about the vichyssoise.

I’m just swooning right now over his grits with tomato gravy recipe to go with fried fish. Mmmmm. Shrimps and smokies: U-peel recipe from the Mucky Duck on Captiva Island. Poached in beer with kielbasa and coriander is classic cracker James Lee Burke boat captain fare. Those ole boys kin cook.

It’s exactly how I want to eat this stuff, and I finally realized why my black beans — and nor Michael Field’s or any Cuban cookbooks’ — don’t taste right. This is your method. Please note how he addresses, without fanfare, many of the mysteries of bean cookery. How much soaking water, and do you cook them in it? Ditto cooking water and how, for soupy beans, they should be submerged. Ditto add no salt until the end of cooking, while other flavorings are applied, and freshly reapplied at the end, during the cooking.

I have had fascists of the newly-converted-to-soul-food school of cooking tell me only white people add any seasoning to beans before the end of cooking, on the same principle as no salt until the end (it makes them impossible to soften). SNAP. 

This is an essay on cooking beans, erudition lightly worn and obviously learned from traditional cooks. The pinch of sugar at the end, for example, brings out the sweetness of the vegetables you boiled with the beans and removed, as supermarketty and home-withered in the refri as they were. Raichlen credits all kinds of cooks throughout.

Steven Raichlen’s New Florida Cuisine Soupy Black Beans
1 lb. dried black beans, washed and picked
1 small onion, cut in half
4 cloves garlic, peeled
2 bay leaves
1/2 green bell pepper, cored and seeded
About 1 t cumin
About 1 t dried oregano

2 strips bacon, cut into 1/2-inch slivers (optional)
1 T olive oil
1/2 small onion, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 green bell pepper, cored, seeded, finely chopped
3 scallions, trimmed and finely chopped

2 T dry white wine
1 T red wine vinegar, or to taste (<——- this is the essential key, along with bell pepper, cumin, oregano)
1/2 t sugar
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

1. In a large heavy pot, soak the beans in cold water to cover by at least 3 inches for no less than 4 hours, or overnight. (If omitting this step, add about 1 hour to the cooking time.)

2. Add the halved onion, garlic cloves, bay leaves, bell pepper, cumin and oregano to the pot of beans and soaking water. Bring to a boil over high heat. Skim off any foam that rises to the surface.

3. Reduce the heat, cover, and gently simmer the beans, stirring occasionally, for 1 hour. Add water as necessary to keep the beans submerged. Remove the onion, garlic, bayleaves and bell pepper with a slotted spoon and discard.

4. Meanwhile, prepare the sofrito. If using bacon, brown it in a heavy frying pan over medium heat. Pour off the fat.

5. Add the olive oil and the remaining sofrito ingredients. (If not using bacon, heat the olive oil in a frying pan, add the sofrito ingredients, and continue with the recipe.) Cook over medium heat until just beginning to brown, about 3 minutes. Stir the sofrito into the beans along with the wine, vinegar, sugar, salt and pepper. Cover and continue simmering the beans, until very soft, about 20 minutes.

6. Just before serving, correct the seasonings, adding salt, pepper, cumin, oregano, or vinegar. The mixture should be highly seasoned. Spoon the soupy black beans over rice.


(c) Jeannette Smyth, all rights reserved.