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The Hispanic dish frijoles negros, or black beans, is a regular accompaniment to many Latin American meals. Typically served over yellow or white rice, or even as a soup, cooks from Cuba and Puerto Rico to Mexico and beyond rarely serve an entree without these tender morsels as a side dish. Though the name implies simplicity, this common recipe is a complex blend of onions, peppers, garlic, an acidic element like vinegar or wine, and a range of Latin-centric seasonings.
Before frijoles negros can begin to take shape, dark legumes of the Phaseolus vulgaris variety have to be cleaned and then soaked in water, setting overnight in the refrigerator. Some skip this step by using canned beans, but many chefs abhor this practice, preferring to cook their own beans in the water they have soaked. It takes at least a half-hour for black beans to cook at a simmer.
Near the end of the cooking time for the beans, a hot oiled pan is filled with chopped onion, garlic and bell pepper until caramelized. Then, some of the beans go into the pan for mashing. This thickens the sauce naturally. Some also add chunks of ham and tomato during this phase.
After a paste is formed in the pan, the rest of the beans and some water or stock can go into the pan, along with seasonings like oregano, cumin, brown sugar and bay leaf. In some countries like Puerto Rico it is customary for frijoles negros to have dry seasonings in place of fresh, like adobo or sazon — two distinctive blends of many native spices. Salt and pepper also is added to taste. Near the end of cooking frijoles negros, many chefs will add some vinegar and even white wine to give the final dish added tang. Just before serving, the bay leaf is removed, and a generous helping of olive oil goes in to take its place.
Slight variations of frijoles negros abound. Some add tomato paste instead of regular tomatoes. This adds acidic flavor, but also thickens the sauce. Others combine the finished beans with a protein like ham, bacon or shredded beef to make the beans more of a meal. As a starter, black bean soup is commonly served without the rice or an entree to detract from its complex flavors.
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