I have a thing about beans. I almost never buy them when I am at home in Rome. But put me on a plane and land me in a foreign land and beans end up filling my luggage. Barcelona, Paris, London and Istanbul were all recent bean sources. Actually, come to think of it, I don’t even have to leave Italy since I managed to bean it up in Torino and Florence.
Somehow I never think of buying beans here in Rome, or even in Todi for that matter. But get me behind a shopping cart in a supermarket in the 6th arrondissement, and I’ll throw in any bean with a romantic sounding name. I guess it’s the thrill of the unknown. That these dry little pellets will, once I get home, get soaked and swell into something expressive of a trip that is now long past.
But here’s the thing. Beans are almost too easy to bring home (nothing to leak) and store (they take a hell of a long time to go bad). The result is that since I’ve been traveling quite a bit in the last year, I’ve got a cupboard full of gorgeous beans that need eating.
This months project: to start working my way through my bean inventory.
Even though I know I should work backwards, using up my oldest beans first, last weekend I went straight for my most recent souvenir: black beans from San Sebastian. I mean look at them. Aren’t they gorgeous. Like little black scarabs you could almost wear. And that’s another thing about beans. They are so darn cute when dry, but kind of lose their looks when cooked.
What I had in mind was a one dish meal, and while I know I probably should have looked up some authentic Basque recipe my inspirations was traveling in another direction. I remembered my Jamaican friend Trudi, from high school, would make beans and rice every Sunday. She would complain about it, since it was her job to grate the coconut, which is a pain. But more than the coconut, I remembered that they cooked the rice and beans together, in the same pot, which seemed like a great idea. I was getting very nostalgic for that version of comfort food.
Since I wanted this to be a one dish wonder, I decided to throw in a hefty quantity of green peppers from our garden. These are frigitelle, and are usually fried as their name suggests. They are much less sweet than bell peppers and have a very thin skin. Those, plus some gorgeous onions grown by our friend Paolo and I had a meal coming together.
Another thing I tend to pick up while traveling are spice mixtures. I’m very good at buying, not so good at labeling. But I’m pretty sure the jar of red spices came from the market in Barcelona. It was a mixture of different red peppers (both sweet and spicy) plus herbs like oregano as well as some cumin seeds. I’m pretty sure the spice vendor said it was supposed to be used with rice. (or was it for grilled meat?) Whatever. It worked for me.
As I feared, once cooked, my shiny black nubbins turned into rosy bean colored…..beans. In fact the entire dish became kind of blah colored, but at least the bright green of the peppers added a bit of excitement. But even if the photos are nothing to write home about, the taste was. It was the exact stick-to-your ribs, nourishing fair – with slightly exotic flavorings – that I remember from Trudi’s Sunday lunches. Even without the coconut.
Black Beans and Rice with Green Peppers
1 1/2 cups dried black beans
4 tablespoons olive oil
700 grams/ 1 1/2 pounds green peppers, cored and chopped
1 large onion, chopped
3 cloves garlic
1 tablespoon sweet paprika
1 tablespoon aleppo pepper
1 tsp cayenne pepper
2 tsp cumin
2 tsp oregano
1 cup rice (I used short grain cannaroli, which worked wonderfully. Arborio would also do)
Soak beans in water for 4 to 6 hours. Drain.
In large pot pour olive oil and heat over medium heat. Add onions and cook for about 7 minutes. Add peppers and garlic, and cook for about 10 minutes, until green peppers start to really wilt. Add spices, stir and cook – stirring – for about another five minutes. Add 1 tsp of salt, stir.
Add the drained beans, stir well, and add water to come up until about three inches above beans. Bring to simmer, and let cook for about 30 minutes.
At this point keep tasting the bean, and add more water if they need more time to cook. When they are about 20 minutes away from being done (still firm) add the rice. (If you’re unsure about the beans, just keep cooking till almost tender. It’s better that the beans are overcooked, rather than undercooked)
Once you add the rice, make sure you have enough liquid with the beans (it should come up about 2 inches above the beans and rice mixture. Add more water if necessary.
Cook, uncovered, over low heat, until rice and beans are done and water is absorbed. Serve right away, but it’s even better the next day.