Black Bean Soup
When I was leafing through ¡Cuba! – Recipes and stories from the Cuban Kitchen, I was reminded how much I like black bean soup. In theory, black bean soup is just a dark bowl of beans and doesn’t sound all that exciting. Which is probably why I hadn’t made it in a while. Also black beans aren’t that easy to come by in France. There are lots of wonderful beans in France – haricots Tarbais, flageolets, and haricots de Soissons, but the cultures (and cuisines) that use black beans don’t necessarily skew with French cuisine, hence their paucity.
Black beans have a particularly rich flavor, much more so than others beans, and lend themselves to being paired with ingredients that have a lot of pizzazz, like peppers, tomatoes, cilantro, and tangy sour cream. You have to dig a little deeply to find them, so I was grateful when I was on book tour and someone handed me a bag of Rancho Gordo black beans. (Thanks to the woman who gifted them to me!) When I got home, I couldn’t wait to use them. I’d been looking for a reason to revisit this soup, that’s a favorite of mine, and here it was – or is.
The first time I had black bean soup was when I was working in a vegetarian restaurant. It was really, really good – excellent, in fact, and had chopped green olives in it. The story goes that a Cuban woman was dining in the restaurant, tasted the black bean soup, paused, then told the cooks that the soup would be better with olives. So they became part of the recipe.
It wouldn’t occur to me to put olives in black bean soup, but works like a dream. The bits of olive gives a salty spark to the inky beans, and I love the combination.
One thing I don’t love, though, is green peppers. But the flavor is important for the soup, so I took one (but not two) for the team, and used one green and one orange bell pepper, to split the difference.
DIYers will be happy to hear that I ground cumin seeds that I picked from a friend’s garden in the south of France, and that I plucked oregano from dried branches another pal had sent me. Gosh, with friends that give me beans, spices and herbs, I just need to find someone that grows and cures their own olives, and I’ll be all set.
Some people don’t think that chile peppers skew French cuisine, and that’s not necessarily true. There are the wonderful Espelette peppers in the Basque region, which I’ve seen fresh in the southwest of France, but they’re usually available dried or powdered. If anyone sees them fresh in Paris, let me know and I’ll be right over!
Wandering around multicultural neighborhoods, which I frequently do, in areas like Belleville and La Chapelle, I come across fresh chiles that are squat and wrinkled, and fiery hot (the vendors always try to dissuade me from buying those), or elongated, twisted varieties that are usually labeled either doux or fort – soft or strong.
Their idea of ‘strong’ is often different than mine, but a middle-range chile is good for this soup. You want a bit of heat, but you don’t want to overwhelm the flavor of the beans. Of course, you can take it in any direction that you want. Either way, a dollop of cream is always welcome, and encouraged.