Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Black is the New Bean

When I decided to stop eating meat, I was determined to be smart about it, especially since I was feeding a growing child. I read whatever I could find about a healthy vegetarian diet and discovered that most sources emphasized the need for protein. For ovo-lacto vegetarians that meant eggs and cheese, and for all vegetarians, grains and legumes. Not only was vegetarian cuisine new to me, but I was also transitioning from a classic German meat and potatoes diet. (We were so German that my mother referred to cream cheese as "smearcase", an Anglicization of Schmierkaese, and Swiss cheese as "Schweizer." And she was two generations away from a native German speaker!) 

Legumes were a new world to explore because I hadn't eaten many different kinds of beans growing up. We had the usual New England baked beans at big family picnics in the summer. Occasionally we had lentil soup, which I found boring. Later I learned about hummus and fell in love with it, but I didn't know what else you could do with chick peas. And red kidney beans were the basis for the gummy re-fried beans served at chain Mexican restaurants as well as an essential ingredient of Complementary Pie, the signature dish from Frances Moore Lappe's Diet for a Small Planet, the official post-hippie, pre-locavore cookbook.

Then in 1980 I was part of a film crew that traveled to the archaeological site at the Mayan ruins of Copan in western Honduras to make a documentary of the dig. As anyone who's ever taken an introductory course in Anthropology knows, there are many theories about the decline of the Maya civilization including war, overpopulation, peasant uprising, and the decline of trade. More recently the theories have focused on environmental factors like disease, climate change and mismanagement of land. The director of the dig we were shooting claimed that to satisfy the ruling class's desire for more wealth the good agricultural land was used for cash crops -- cacao in the Mayan era -- forcing subsistence farming into the hills where the yield was not enough to support the masses, leading to malnutrition, disease, and a steep decline in the population.

Our job as filmmakers was to illustrate this theory, a job made easy by the fact that, as the director pointed out, the same conditions existed then as in the Mayan period. The population was rising, the good agricultural land was being used for tobacco, and much of the local population was growing subsistence crops in whatever little patches of arable land they could find. We loaded into a pickup truck and bounced into the hills along the Guatemalan border to film the process. First we shot a couple of men scaling the steep slopes planting wherever they could by poking a hole in the ground with a long stick, dropping in a seed, then tamping the soil with a foot. Then we found a father and his two small boys harvesting their plot of beans by hand, bending over to pull up the plants with the dried beanpods attached. From there we filmed a man threshing the beans, and then wind winnowing, all by hand.

It gradually dawned on me during the day that these were black beans, much smaller than kidney beans, dark and beautiful. I learned that these are the preferred beans of this area of western Honduras and of Guatemala. And I learned, as I ate them for lunch made by the local women who cooked for the archaeologists, that they are delicious. From that point forward I've loved black beans, of course because of the taste, but more because of seeing those beautiful descendants of the Maya eke out a simple living in a most beautiful place. To this day I feel privileged to have been allowed into their world, and to record a way of life that may, for all I know, be long gone.

Black Bean Chili

3 cups black turtle beans
2 bay leaves
2 large onions, quartered and thinly sliced
6 cloves garlic, minced
3 Tbsp corn oil
1 ancho chili
1 Tbsp ground cumin
1Tbsp oregano
1 1/2 tsp smoked paprika
1 1/2 tsp Hungarian paprika
1/4 to 1/2 tsp cayenne pepper
1/2 to 1 tsp chipotle chili in adobo sauce
1 26 oz box of chopped tomatoes
salt to taste
juice of one lime
1/2 cup coarsely chopped cilantro

Soak the beans overnight in water to cover. The next day, drain the beans and cover with fresh water. Add the bay leaves, bring to a boil, then turn down heat and simmer until beans are just about tender.

Place ancho chili in 350F oven until it's puffed up. Stem and seed the chili, then tear it into small pieces and grind it in a spice mill. Add to that the cumin, oregano, the paprikas and the cayenne.

While the beans are cooking, saute the onions and garlic in oil until the onions are golden. Add the chili mixture and stir for a few seconds, then add the tomatoes. When the beans are nearly tender, add the tomato mixture to the pot. Add the chipotle. Simmer for a while until the beans are fully cooked, then add salt to taste, lime juice and cilantro.

I like to make this chili a day or two ahead because it really improves with time. Serve garnished with any combination of cheese, more cilantro, chopped egg, green onions, sour cream or anything else you can think of.

We ate the chili with quesadillas. It's a stick-to-your-ribs meal for cold and snowy weather, which is what we've got here now.

1 comment:

  1. I've been trying hard to like black beans... they are definitely not my favorite. But this looks like a perfect recipe for my next try!!