Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Traditional Guatemalan Black Beans

For the sake of friendship and hunger, I recently endured an ear- splitting evening at a trendy San Francisco vegan Mexican restaurant. One of my favorite urban rambles is the walk from the chilly Inner Richmond District  to the sunnier Mission, so on a late afternoon this summer I happily set off on foot to meet friends for an early evening meal. I arrived an hour later, hungry for conversation and in need of some serious nutrition.

Conversation was difficult (but not impossible) amid the din but to my surprise, my selection of a bowl of perfectly prepared Guatemalan style black beans turned out to be an inspired choice which triggered a weeks long black bean cooking odyssey. After some random kitchen experimentation and close questioning of native cooks, I eventually captured the singularly satisfying flavor I recalled from my travels in the highlands of Guatemala, where black beans are simmered daily in battered cookware on smokey wood fires.

What I had been slow to realize was the obvious-  there is no esoteric or secret ingredient in an olla of Guatemalan black beans; their goodness resides in the essence of the beans themselves and the utter simplicity of the preparation.  Beans, water, onion, garlic and salt are all that are required to make exceptional  frijoles negros, the pride of Mayan cuisine. 

Guatemalan Black Beans

2 1/2 cups black beans, picked over and soaked for at least 6 hours
5 - 6 cups fresh water
1 medium yellow onion, whole
3 whole garlic cloves, unpeeled
1 teaspoon sea salt 

Drain the beans and rinse well.  Place beans in a heavy cooking pot, add water and bring to a boil. Lower the flame so that beans are simmering gently, then add onion and garlic. Cover and continue cooking on a low flame for at least one hour or until beans are very tender.  Stir in sea salt, taste and correct seasoning.  Remove garlic cloves from the pot.  If you are a garlic lover, peel and mash the cloves and stir them back into the beans.

Serve the beans in their broth;  they need no adornment.  With the first taste, I smell the woodsmoke which drifts through the villages on the highland breezes, and in my mind's eye I see the blue tinted volcanic peaks surrounding Lake Atitlan.  Not far away, a rooster crows. Gracias, Guatemala!