Thursday, November 1, 2007

Belizean Stewed Beans

There are literally hundreds and hundreds of varieties of beans, and each one is especially beloved by at least one country, culture, region, island, town, village or individual somewhere on the planet. Everybody has their favorite, and will defend it to the death. Don't ever tell a lover of legumes that their preferred bean is not the best! Luckily for us, pretty much all of them are delicious and each bean has its own unique qualities to contribute to the culinary arts, so we can enjoy them equally without having to pick a fight.

That being said, in my part of the world we usually eat what are known as red kidney (RK) beans, and those particular beans are definitely a Belizean favorite. They are also a popular component in Cajun food and chili here in the USA. You can learn the basics about kidney beans, including calorie info, here: RK Beans at Whole Foods. This post explains how I prepare Belizean Stew Beans, a staple that is the backbone of the Belizean diet. We eat it almost every day, and turn leftovers into refried beans for breakfast. While many people put a pigtail in the beans for added flavour, I usually stick with a vegetarian version. (Not to mention that I haven't seen pigtail for sale anywhere in DC lately).

The classic way to serve stew RK beans is with white rice, a side of coleslaw, some fried plantains or bluggos (a cooking banana not available in the USA) and, if you are lucky, some Belizean stewed chicken (recipe coming up soon) or fried fish.

I learned to cook beans as a kid, and quickly discovered that my parents had completely different styles of cooking as evinced by the way they prepare beans and rice. My mother meticulously measures everything out, while my father simply "eyes" the quantities and measures the water in relation to the amount of beans and the length of his index finger. I liked my Dad's way better, since all it involved was dumping the beans in the pot and adding "enough" water, but I shall try to inject some measurements here to give you an idea of how it works.

Belizean Stew Beans

About 4 cups of dried Red Kidney beans
Water
Ground cumin: about 1/2 tsp or to taste
Whole cumin seeds: about 1 tsp or to taste
Dried oregano: about 1 tsp or to taste
1 or 2 bay leaf (in Belize I usually use a leaf from the allspice tree instead)
Freshly ground black pepper: about 1/2 tsp or to taste
Onions: 1 large or 2 medium, diced.
Garlic: about 4-6 cloves, or to taste, each one cut into two or three pieces.
Recado*: a piece about 1 tsp in size.
Salt: about 1 tsp or to taste
About 1 tbsp coconut oil (optional)

*This is a mix of annatto paste with other spices (black pepper, cumin, oregano, salt to name a few) which is formed into balls or blocks and sold across Mesoamerica. I do not know if it is readily available in the USA or not as I always get it from home. If you can't find it in your area (look in stores selling Mexican food), you can substitute about 1/2 tsp chili powder. You can read about recado rojo here. There is also a pitch black version, recado negro, which is spicier.

Procedure:

1. People are often scared of cooking beans from scratch because they think that it is difficult or will take too long. While most dry legumes (lentils are an exception) do need to soak before being cooked, this can easily be worked into a busy schedule. Personally I like to set the beans to soak in the morning, and then cook them in the evening. You can also set them to soak the night before and cook them the next day. If you need to have dinner on the table in 20 minutes, don't serve them the same night you cook them, as it takes an hour or two for the beans to get tender. Instead, let them cook away while you go about your evening routine, and the next day you will have a big pot of beans that can be used in hundreds of different and delicious ways.

So: the first step here is to take the beans, dump them into a large pot and add water. Swish the water around, look for any debris and strain the beans. Then refill the pot with water, about twice as much as you have beans. You want the beans to be sitting under several inches of water. Set them on a counter top, cover with a lid and forget about them for 5-12 hours.

2. When you wake up the next morning or get back from work that evening, the beans will have absorbed most of the water in the pot and will be leathery and flexible. Top off the pot with more water so that you again have at least 2 inches of water above the level of the beans. Set the beans over medium heat with the lid on and leave them to simmer. At this point you can go do other things. Do your laundry, cook your dinner, pay bills, watch TV, whatever. Just try to check the beans once every 20 minutes or so, give them a good stir and see whether they are soft yet. If you need to, add a little extra water (sometimes the beans will soak up a lot of it as they begin to cook).

3. When they are mostly soft (slightly "al dente" to taste), add the chopped onion, the garlic, the bay leaf and all the spices EXCEPT the salt. Let cook some more until the beans are completely soft, then add the salt and the coconut oil if you are using it (DO NOT substitute coconut milk, it will not be the same). Important: The reason the salt is added last is that if you add it before the beans have cooked completely, it toughens them, with less than yummy results (leathery bean skin is not what you want in your final product).

4. At this point the beans are done. You should have a pot full of soft beans swimming around in a delicious dark red broth of their own juices. However, they always taste best when they have been cooked or reheated several times. This allows the flavours to meld. So if you aren't planning on eating them immediately, let them simmer for a while longer (I usually let them cook on low heat until I go to bed.)

Now What?

Now that you have a big pot of delicious stewed RK beans, what to do with them? Well, make some rice and fried plantain and eat them of course! But there are a lot of other options as well. If you think you wont use them up quickly, portion the beans out into plastic containers and freeze them for later. You can use these frozen beans to make anything calling for canned ones, just zap them in the microwave to defrost them first. But make sure you cook up a big pot to start with because you will want to use some stewed beans to:


1. Make some authentic homemade refried beans! Just toss beans in a pan with a little fat (olive, canola or coconut oil, or even lard if you want), hot sauce and/or other spices to taste and cook over medium/low heat. Since these beans are already seasoned, you probably won't need to add too many ingredients. Mash the beans up with a fork or potato masher and stir regularly until they reduce. Stash these in the fridge where they will keep for at least a week. Serve with eggs and tortillas for breakfast, make bean burritos for your work lunch or a quick dinner, or concoct some nachos for game night.

2. Make chili! There are a million chili recipes out there, and some people argue that chili shouldn't have any beans in it, but I think that is a regional preference-I know I like mine with beans as do a lot of other people, judging from some of the recipes out there. I'm sure I don't need to provide you with a chili recipe-just use your personal favorite (if it contains beans) and substitute some of your stewed beans for the canned ones-I assure you the results will be better!

3. Make minestrone! My mother often would whip together some type of minestrone to use up leftover beans. Its a great way to add some veggies to your diet too! Normally minestrone calls for cannellini beans, but RKs work fine in some versions (you will have to experiment to see if you agree).

4. Eat them every day like a Belizean. With rice. With fish. With stew chicken. And fried plantain, of course. Enjoy!-and don't forget the Marie Sharps hot sauce!

6 comments:

Cynthia said...

Cooked low and slow, you gotta love red beans stew.

Lyra said...

Can't go wrong with red beans...

Anonymous said...

I just found your blog. I've never cooked with dried beans before, but after reading this I want to!

Thank you for sharing this recipe!

--Meg

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Andrea Johnson said...

Thank you for posting this. We recently went to Belize and came back craving stew chicken and rice and beans. I'm excited to try this on my own!