COOKING RICE AND BEANS TOGETHER MAKES EACH BETTER
Rice and beans sustain many millions of people every day, from Brazil to Africa and from New Orleans to Delhi. The combination is satisfying and nutritious but rarely sexy—unless of course you’re talking about the Cuban version.
Cuban black beans and rice is popular well beyond its island home because of the complex flavors contributed by sautéed vegetables, spices, and pork. The dried beans are traditionally simmered on their own, and then some of the inky bean liquid is used to cook the rice, adding still more depth to this one-dish meal.
While rice and beans should be hearty, it shouldn’t be stodgy and, unfortunately, that’s often the case. Likewise, getting the texture of the main elements just right is a challenge, especially if the rice and beans spend time cooking together. It seems that one element is either overdone or underdone.
Rinsing the rice and limiting the liquid in the pot with the rice are good first steps to eliminating the starch problem. And cooking the beans until they are completely tender (so that they are no longer soaking up liquid) makes it easier to determine the right amount of liquid for cooking the rice.
But the real secret is to reduce the number of burst beans—the main source of all that starch. Soaking dried beans helps, but brining the beans (that is, adding salt to the water) is transformative (see this section for more information). The salt weakens the pectin network in the skins, allowing them to soften and expand during the cooking process. Elastic skins are the key to beans that don’t cook up starchy. They don’t brine beans in Cuba—but maybe they should.
WHY THIS RECIPE WORKS
Flavor the Beans as They Cook
The traditional recipe has three parts—cook the beans, cook the sofrito, and then combine the sofrito and beans with the rice to finish cooking. Our version begins with brining the beans and then cooking them partway. A sofrito adds depth but we found we needed more. Our twofold solution: We add some vegetables to the pot of beans as they cook and we use a mixture of chicken broth and water. This gives flavor to the beans as well as to the cooking liquid (which is later used to cook the rice).
Make the Sofrito
The sofrito is commonly pureed before adding it to the beans and rice mixture, but this muddies the texture and eliminates the possibility of browning the vegetables for flavor. Instead, we chop the onion and peppers small (or pulse them in a food processor). Then we sauté them with some cumin and oregano in the rendered fat from salt pork until they’re golden brown and packed with flavor. A hit of minced garlic completes the sofrito, which is the backbone of this dish.
Prevent Scorched Rice
Many versions of this classic recipe suffer from rice that is scorched on the bottom of the pan and undercooked on top. What to do? First, we remove excess starch from the rice by rinsing it in water. This helps prevent the individual rice grains from clumping and becoming sticky. Then, we move the entire operation into the oven. The even heat from the oven cooks the rice perfectly from top to bottom.
Brighten the Flavors
When the pot (with the rice, beans, and liquid) goes into the oven, we add a splash of red wine vinegar for brightness. And we finish the dish with scallions and lime, which are important additions that really bring the other flavors to life.
Aromatic vegetables pull double duty, flavoring the beans as they simmer and creating a flavor base for the rice.
Cuban-Style Black Beans and Rice
SERVES 6 TO 8
- 8 to 24 hours to brine beans
- 45 minutes to cook beans (rinse rice and prepare ingredients for sofrito while beans are cooking)
- 30 minutes to cook sofrito
- 40 minutes to cook rice and beans together (mostly hands-off)
- Dutch oven with tight-fitting lid
- Colander for draining beans
- Fine-mesh strainer for rinsing rice
Substitutions & Variations
- If you can’t find lean salt pork, substitute 6 slices of bacon. If using bacon, decrease the cooking time in step 4 to 8 minutes.
- For a vegetarian version, substitute water for chicken broth and omit salt pork. Add 1 tablespoon tomato paste with vegetables in step 4 and increase amount of salt in step 5 to 1½ teaspoons.
It is important to use lean—not fatty—salt pork.
- 1 cup dried black beans, picked over and rinsed
- 2 cups chicken broth
- 2 large green bell peppers, halved, stemmed, and seeded
- 1 large onion, halved at equator and peeled, root end left intact
- 1 head garlic (5 cloves minced, rest of head halved at equator with skin left intact)
- 2 bay leaves
- 1½ cups long-grain white rice
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 6 ounces lean salt pork, cut into ¼-inch dice
- 4 teaspoons ground cumin
- 1 tablespoon minced fresh oregano
- 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
- 2 scallions, sliced thin
- Lime wedges
- Dissolve 1½ tablespoons salt in 2 quarts cold water in large bowl or container. Add beans and soak at room temperature for at least 8 hours or up to 24 hours. Drain and rinse well.
- In Dutch oven, stir together drained beans, broth, 2 cups water, 1 pepper half, 1 onion half (with root end), halved garlic head, bay leaves, and 1 teaspoon salt. Bring to simmer over medium-high heat, cover, and reduce heat to low. Cook until beans are just soft, 30 to 35 minutes. Using tongs, discard pepper, onion, garlic, and bay leaves. Drain beans in colander set over large bowl, reserving 2½ cups bean cooking liquid. (If you don’t have enough bean cooking liquid, add water to equal 2½ cups.) Do not wash out Dutch oven.
- Adjust oven rack to middle position and heat oven to 350 degrees. Place rice in large fine-mesh strainer and rinse under cold running water until water runs clear, about 1½ minutes. Shake strainer vigorously to remove all excess water; set rice aside. Cut remaining peppers and onion into 2-inch pieces and pulse in food processor until broken into rough ¼-inch pieces, about 8 pulses, scraping down bowl as necessary; set vegetables aside.
- In now-empty Dutch oven, heat 1 tablespoon oil and salt pork over medium-low heat and cook, stirring frequently, until lightly browned and rendered, 15 to 20 minutes. Add remaining 1 tablespoon oil, chopped peppers and onion, cumin, and oregano. Increase heat to medium and continue to cook, stirring frequently, until vegetables are softened and beginning to brown, 10 to 15 minutes longer. Add minced garlic and cook, stirring constantly, until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add rice and stir to coat, about 30 seconds.
- Stir in beans, reserved bean cooking liquid, vinegar, and ½ teaspoon salt. Increase heat to medium-high and bring to simmer. Cover and transfer to oven. Cook until liquid is absorbed and rice is tender, about 30 minutes. Fluff with fork and let rest, uncovered, 5 minutes. Serve, passing scallions and lime wedges separately.
A Better Way to Soak Dried Beans
Soaking dried beans shortens their cooking time and results in creamier beans with fewer burst or starchy samples. Adding salt to the soaking water—in effect, brining the beans—makes their skins more elastic and further reduces bursting. The amounts of salt and water listed here are for 1 pound of dried beans. Use half as much salt and water when soaking 1 cup of beans. To speed up the soaking process, bring the water and salt to a boil in a Dutch oven and then slide the pot off the heat. Add the beans and soak for 1 hour. Although less effective than an overnight soak, a quick soak is better than nothing.
1). Place dried beans on plate or cutting board and pick through them to remove any stones as well as beans that are broken or shriveled. (A plate or board with a contrasting color, or even a rimmed baking sheet, makes it especially easy to identify pebbles and other foreign matter.) place beans in colander and rinse well.
2). Dissolve 3 tablespoons salt in 4 quarts cold water in large bowl or container. (Make sure to use table salt, not kosher salt; the former dissolves much more easily.)
3). Add beans and soak at room temperature for at least 8 hours or up to 24 hours.
4). Drain beans in colander and rinse well to flush out any traces of salt. Beans are now ready to cook.
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