Black beans have enjoyed a surge in popularity with the last decade's renaissance in Caribbean cooking. But they have yet to earn their well-deserved place as a staple in the modern diet. Here are some ways to use black beans in your kitchen.
Liza Janco

The history of the black bean
In the war torn Mexico of the mid 19th century Mexican authorities captured a band of Texan vigilantes. The 176 prisoners were forced to draw black beans from a jar to see who would live and who would be executed for their war crimes. An unlucky 17 were shot and buried on the outskirts of Hacienda del Salado and the legend of the black bean lottery was born.

But really, that should not put you off from the delicious, diminutive Native American bean.

Black beans are 1/4 inch or a bit longer, oval and mildly earthy, tasting like a sweet mushroom. They are also known as Mexican Blacks, turtle beans and Spanish black beans.

The indigenous bean was one of nature's gifts to settlers here and it enjoyed the respect it deserved as a culinary staple in the diets of the ancient Incas and modern native American Indians. And that's no wonder. One cup of cooked black beans weighs in at 227 calories and less than a gram of fat. It provides 15 grams of both protein and dietary fiber as well as being rich in dietary enzymes, amino acids and trace elements.

In the United States, black beans account for about 7 percent f the nation's bean production, most of it being grown in Michigan, Colorado and North Dakota. In backyard gardener's terms that's 1,250,000 bushels of bean production annually.

Know your beans
Beans are generally sold in 1-pound bags or in bulk. Once sequestered in gourmet and ethnic cooking areas, they are now available in most every corner market and major chain. A pound of dried beans equals about 2 1/2 cups of dried beans and about six cups of cooked beans. Always check the beans for little pebbles and other foreign objects before you begin soaking them.

While most recipes call for soaking your beans before cooking them, don't oversoak your beans. When left too long in standing water, they begin to ferment, which is fine if you want to prepare a fermented black bean cake, but it's not conducive to most other recipes. A good solution is to wash the beans thoroughly in cold water and drain. Then cover the beans with boiling water and leave about 2 inches of water on top. The beans will be ready in about two hours when you can drain them and store them in the refrigerator until you're ready to use them.

You can freeze your beans after you soak them, which lets you prepare a large batch and then save individual or family-sized portions. Just be sure to drain the beans thoroughly and get as much air out of the plastic bag as possible before putting them in the freezer.

Beyond basic beans
Don't limit your enjoyment of black beans to seven-layer dip and the occasional burrito. Here are some other ideas:

  • Sprout them. Black beans can be sprouted just like alfalfa or mung beans. First, soak the beans in cold water for about four hours. Then rinse the beans three or four times in cold water and drain them thoroughly. Finally, put them in a sprouter or wide mouthed jar covered with cheesecloth and rinse and drain them twice daily. In about five days your sprouts will be ready to add to salads, stir fries (don?t cook them for more than a minute) or stuffed sandwich pockets.
  • Try a black bean omelet. Saut? some red onion and oregano until the onion is wilted and add some canned or leftover cooked black beans to heat them through. Fold them into an omelet with a little jack cheese and garnish with some red sauce or salsa. This is soul food.
  • Skip the pinto beans the next time you make chili. Make your favorite recipe and add some cooked black beans when the chili is ready to serve or pass them separately. Black beans are sweeter, less meaty and are firmer than the traditional choice. Besides that, they're more authentic to traditional Mexican cooking. But, because the black beans have so much natural dye, anything you simmer them with for too long will take on a muddy color. So it's best to add them at the end.



Summer Bean Salad
Many bean recipes are for heavy soups or stick to your ribs rice dishes. But black beans make a great vegetarian main dish salad. You can vary this recipe, adding or taking away as you see fit, red or green onions, peas and snap peas are all great additions. If you feel adventurous, try some hearts of palm or miniature ears of corn. This salad is great at room temperature or refrigerated and leftovers keep well for two or three days.

Ingredients

  • 1 (approximately 14 ounce) can each of corn, black beans and unmarinated, quartered artichoke hearts.
  • 3 tablespoons chopped, fresh dill.
  • 2 large cloves minced garlic
  • 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • Red lettuce leaves torn into bite-sized pieces
  • 1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
  • 1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
  • Salt and pepper to taste

    Drain the vegetables and mix with the dill in a large bowl. Put the garlic, oil, vinegar and crushed pepper in a jar and shake until emulsified. Toss with the veggies and season to taste. Serve the salad on a bed of lettuce and add some fresh bread.

    Serves:Two as a main course and four to six as a side dish.

    If you'd like to learn more ways to cook with black beans, the American Dry Bean Board has a wonderful online cookbook for would-be bean lovers who like to experiment. Check it out at http://adbb.cdirect.com/Cookbook/.PregnancyAndBaby.com


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