Frijoles Negros, Alyssa Style

This recipe is as much a requiem as a celebration.

Frijoles negros, black beans, are at the center of the Antillean Hispanic culinary constellation. Any group meal will have them, any celebration platter will center them, and any rotation of different dishes will find them eventually. One does not experience the food of Puerto Rico, Cuba, or the Dominican Republic without dining on black beans and rice. I made this meal the center of numerous efforts to impress non-Hispanic paramours, and I kept it in my repertoire because of how constant, and powerful, its memories are.

What’s interesting is that I know that smell in two rather different forms. One side of my family is Cuban, the other, Puerto Rican. In our day-to-day, the frijoles negros I experienced were the Puerto Rican congri style, based in the same West African one-pot cooking method that spawned arroz con gandules. Cooking the beans and rice together causes the beans to stain the rice dark gray and infuse it with the beans’ rich flavor. But for holidays, which I often spent with my father’s family and which followed my father’s patterns even at home, we instead ate moros y cristianos. When the beans and rice are kept separate until serving, the rice remains white, and Spain and Cuba both name the resulting two-tone dish “Moors and Christians,” in reference to Medieval Spain’s ethnic makeup. Both versions are otherwise quite similar. I got used to congri as ordinary and intimate, and moros y cristianos being a sign of festive times. In both forms, hearty and heavy with cumin, black beans and rice smell like home. I should clarify, both versions appear in both countries, yet the pattern remained.

Like most notions of home, it is one I can experience only fitfully. The North American black turtle bean, Phaseolus vulgaris, is far less kind to the frail stomach than pigeon peas, and my body has progressively rejected it. What I share with you now is one last attempt to get it right.

Because the techniques involved are so similar and ingredients lists identical, I cover both versions here. This recipe serves six and reheats well, but does not last especially long after cooking. The beans in particular are vulnerable to mold. Congri and moros y cristianos are both often served as vegetarian meals in their own right, due to the hearty, meaty presence of the black beans, but can be combined with small portions of protein if desired.

Equipment

You will need a stovetop or similar bottom-up heat source, your favorite cutting and chopping tools, a long wooden spoon for stirring, and a large pot or saucepan. The traditional pot for congri and most other Puerto Rican one-pot dishes is the caldero, a cast-aluminum pot with curved, medium-height sides and a fitted lid. Similar in concept to the “Dutch oven” style of cast-iron pot, this is a versatile and convenient addition to any kitchen and is easier to clean after use with rice than a stainless-steal, straight-sided pot. Anything with similar properties and appropriate volume will do the job; the close-fitting lid is important. For moros y cristianos, a pressure cooker is also recommended.

My caldero, long may she reign.

Ingredients

  • Black beans (frijoles / habichuelas negros), 1 cup dried or 1 can
  • Water (see “Soaking the Beans”)
  • Salt (see “Soaking the Beans”)
  • Yellow Spanish onion, 1, small, or dried onion flakes, 1 tablespoon
  • Vinegar, 1 tablespoon
  • Green bell pepper, 1, without seeds
  • Red pepper flakes, ½ teaspoon
  • Fresh culantro/recao leaves, 3. Substitute with a slightly higher quantity of cilantro.
  • Oregano, ½ teaspoon
  • Cumin, 1 tablespoon
  • Sazón, to taste. I prefer Badía.
  • Olive oil, 1 tablespoon
  • White rice, 2 cups
  • Pimento-stuffed manzanilla olives, 6

Common Food Restrictions

  • Gluten-Free: This recipe is gluten-free.
  • Ketogenic / Low-Carb: This recipe is based on rice and beans and cannot be made low-carb.
  • Low-FODMAP: This recipe is not FODMAP-friendly in the slightest and should be consumed with great caution on a low-FODMAP diet, if at all. The impact can be reduced by not retaining any liquid from cans or that was used in soaking the beans.
  • Vegetarian/Vegan: This recipe is vegan.

Soaking the Beans

Black beans need to be soaked prior to cooking, or they will be somewhere between inedibly hard and far crunchier than this recipe demands. All of these steps should be completed shortly before the steps in “Preparation”; soaked or drained beans have a very short shelf life.

Canned: Canned beans do not need to be soaked. Drain them and optionally retain the liquid for use elsewhere in the recipe.

Dried: Rinse the dried beans to remove dust. Soak for at least 24 hours. Use a ratio of 1 cup of beans to 2.5 cups of water to 0.5 tablespoons of salt. Optionally retain this liquid for later use in the recipe. The beans should be soft enough to squeeze between two fingers.

Note that the liquid drained from canned or dried beans will contain some of the complex sugars that induce intestinal gas and make beans troublesome for people with digestive conditions. Although this dish is never kind to frail guts, it is much worse if this liquid is incorporated into the dish. These liquids can be discarded instead of retained, at the cost of a small amount of bean flavor and salt. If soaking longer than 24 hours, discard and replace the liquid after each 24-hour increment.

Preparation, Congri

An image of congri, showing how the black beans have stained the rice.
From https://thehungrycuban.com/congri-morors/
  1. Bring 6 cups of water to a boil. If retaining soaking water, include this in the 6 cups.
  2. As the water boils, finely chop or blend the green bell pepper and yellow onion and set aside.
  3. Combine the rice, beans, spices, olives, olive oil, vinegar, green bell pepper, and yellow onion with the boiling water, stir well, and bring to a boil again.
  4. Once the water begins to boil again, reduce the heat to moderate-high and continue to cook uncovered until most of the water evaporates.
  5. Reduce heat to low, stir again, and cover for 10 minutes. Keep an eye on the caldero to make sure the edges do not burn, and remove it from the heat early if it does.
  6. Stir the rice and cook until done.

Preparation, Moros y Cristianos

A plate of moros y cristianos, showing that the rice was not cooked in the same pot as the beans.
From http://www.customcatering.net/Rec_Entr/Black_Beans_and_Rice_Recipe.html
  1. Finely chop or blend the green bell pepper and yellow onion and set aside.
  2. If using a pressure cooker
    1. Combine the green bell pepper, yellow onion, vinegar, olives, olive oil, spices and beans in 2 cups of water in the pressure cooker.
    2. Cook for 20 minutes after the cooker pressurizes.
    3. Allow to depressurize and set aside.
  3. If using a stovetop
    1. Bring 3 cups of water to a boil. If retaining water from soaking the beans, include that water in the 2 cups.
    2. Add the beans, green bell pepper, yellow onion, vinegar, olives, olive oil, and spices and boil until desired degree of softness is achieved, adding water if necessary. Do not allow to dry completely or they will burn.
    3. Remove from heat and set aside.
  4. Bring 4 cups of liberally salted water to a boil.
  5. Add rice and bring to a boil again.
  6. Once the water begins to boil again, reduce the heat to moderate-high and continue to cook uncovered until most of the water evaporates.
  7. Reduce heat to low, stir again, and cover for 15 minutes.
  8. Stir the rice and cook until done.
    1. Alternately, replace steps 4-8 with using a rice cooker to cook the rice, as long as salt is included.
  9. Serve the rice first with the beans on top

As above, neither congri nor moros y cristianos requires a protein counterpart to be a full meal, though both benefit from a salad of fresh tomato and lettuce. When accompanying these dishes with baked chicken breast or similar fare, reduce the portion size accordingly. This dish is naturally gluten-free. Add garlic for extra flavor, albeit for extra risk for sensitive stomachs.

And with this, I share with the world a recipe I can no longer effectively share with myself. May frijoles negros serve you as they can no longer serve me.

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Frijoles Negros, Alyssa Style
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