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Cuban Black Bean Stew
(recipe, Sally Swift & Lynne Rossetto Kasper)
Cuba's black-bean soup ranks with France's steak frites and Italy's spaghetti with red sauce as a national obsession. It is a touchstone dish of the Caribbean.
Usually made with dried beans (definitely worth the extra cooking time when you have it), the dish can nonetheless be adapted to a streamlined model with canned beans. One way to make up for a lack of long simmering is to blend the beans and some liquid into a highly flavored sauté and give everything a short time on the stove. The soup blossoms with a rest off the heat, and an overnight stay in the refrigerator gives it even fuller flavor.
This soup demands a finish of onion and lime juice or vinegar (sherry vinegar is our pick).
- 1 or 2 meaty smoked ham hocks (about 1½ pounds total)
- Good-tasting extra-virgin olive oil
- 3 whole cloves
- 2 medium-to-large onions, chopped into ½-inch dice
- 1 small-to-medium green bell pepper, cut into ½-inch pieces
- 1 small-to-medium red bell pepper, cut into ½-inch pieces
- 2 tsp. kosher salt
- 2 cans (14 ounces each) chicken or vegetable broth
- 3 bay leaves, broken
- 2 tsp. ground cumin
- 1½ tsp. dried oregano
- ¾ to 1 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
- 3 generous Tbsp. tomato paste
- 3 cans (15 ounces each) black beans, drained and rinsed
- 3 limes, halved, or about ½ cup sherry, wine, cider or palm vinegar
- 1 cup chopped mild onion
- ½ cup chopped fresh cilantro leaves
- Hot sauce
- Trim the meat away from the ham-hock bone, cutting it into small pieces. Don't be too fussy; leaving some on the bone is fine. Film the bottom of a 10-quart stockpot with olive oil and heat over medium-high heat. Stir in the meat, bone, cloves, onions, bell peppers, and salt. Sauté for 8 minutes, stirring occasionally, or until the vegetables are sizzling and there's a brown glaze on the bottom of the pan (the vegetables need not brown, and take care not to let that glaze blacken).
- Add a little of the broth along with the garlic, bay leaves, cumin, oregano, black pepper, and tomato paste. With a wooden spatula, scrape up the glaze as you simmer the mix on medium-high heat for 3 minutes. Then add the beans and the remaining broth. Adjust the heat so the soup bubbles gently. Cover the pot tightly, and cook for 20 minutes.
- Stir in the juice from 2½ limes or ⅓ cup of the vinegar. Taste the soup for seasoning. Adjust the salt, pepper, and lime juice or vinegar to taste.
- Ladle the soup into bowls, topping each serving with a heaping tablespoon of chopped onion and a little fresh cilantro. Have the hot sauce on the table. In Cuban style, you could ladle the stew over rice.
We use a 10-quart pot because its size provides a broader cooking surface. Cooking that all-important sauté on the larger surface discourages steaming and helps build up a flavor-packed brown glaze on the pot. That glaze is key to the soup's success.
Don't worry if the vegetables don't brown — the glaze is the thing. This, and the pork, creates the heart of the soup. If you only have a 6-quart pot, do Step 1 in a big sauté pan, then combine the sauté with the beans and broth in a 6-quart pot.