I didn’t meet her until after she was dead. An intrepid Gourmet magazine reader, my friend Jessica introduced Ms. Colwin and I, or rather she introduced me to the column Colwin wrote for Gourmet. Little did Jessica know when she made the introduction that Laurie Colwin would become one of my best friends in the kitchen. Ms. Colwin’s books Home Cooking and More Home Cooking are ones that I would include in any cookbook library. Her stories make you laugh, her descriptions make you hungry, she makes you feel like you’ve know her forever even if you never actually got a chance to meet her, but most importantly Laurie Colwin’s writing makes you feel invincible in the kitchen. How can you not want to cook with someone who assures you that, “Black beans are the frazzled person’s friend” or who lets you know that the simple act of having a can of black beans in your house means you are stocked for an emergency? Living in the woods I feel a compulsion to be prepared for emergencies and if a couple of sixteen ounce cans of black beans will both prepare me for a power outage, unexpected guests, and de-frazzle me all at the same time than hurrah for black beans and huzzah for Laurie Colwin.
Despite my admiration for Ms. Colwin she and I have a few lifestyle differences. She lived in New York City, I live in the wilds of western Massachusetts. Due to a postage stamp size freezer she didn’t make her own chicken stock, whereas I, with my stand up freezer in the basement, always make my own. She was a writer, while I have been a food stylist for most of my career. We don’t disagree on anything significant though – in fact I actually think we were food twins cruelly separated from one another. We both work/ed from home, we both swear by flame tamers (though my husband does not feel you can leave the house with the stove on unless it is just to go down to the garden or the compost pile and then come right back), we both feel/felt that cooking is akin to breathing i.e. you can’t not do it, and we both eat/ate gallons of black bean soup. If Laurie Colwin were still around I would invite her to come to my house in the country for a weekend where I would serve her a steaming bowl of black bean soup with a basket of cornbread sticks to dip into it.
Black Bean Soup
2 pounds dry black beans
water and/or chicken stock
1 cup Pace Picante Sauce (mild, medium or hot your choice)
1 onion, diced
1 potato, peeled and diced
2-3 teaspoons ground cumin
2 teaspoons thyme
2-4 cloves garlic, minced
grated cheese, minced scallions, sour cream or yoghurt, fresh lime wedges and/or hot sauce for serving (all optional)
Soak the beans in cold water to cover for an hour or overnight. If you forget to do this do not despair, simply rinse the beans, place in a large pot and simmer until mostly soft. If you do remember to soak your beans then drain the soaking water, dump the beans into a large pot, cover with fresh water and simmer until soft. The trick is to peek in on them every so often to make sure that your water hasn’t boiled away.
Once the beans are soft, and that time will vary depending on if you cook your beans over a simmering flame or a rolling boil (because you may be in a hurry), start adding the other ingredients. If you are having vegetarians or vegans to dinner skip the chicken broth and just add some more water or vegetable broth. The reason I don’t cook my beans in broth from the beginning is that my broth is made from roasted chicken carcasses which were seasoned with salt, pepper, and thyme. I feel that cooking beans with salt tends not to allow them to fully soften which is why I add the broth after they’ve had a chance to cook and soften a bit.
Once you’ve added liquid to your soup plop all the other soup ingredients (not to be confused with the serving ingredients) into the pot and give it a couple of stirs. Note: L.C. uses canned tomatoes in her black bean soup which I don’t bother with since there is usually a jar of Pace picante sauce in my fridge. Pace is great because it uses fresh jalalepeno peppers and onions in their picante sauce, but if you have a favorite salsa use that. Or you can follow L.C. and use canned tomatoes chopped up. This is a very flexible recipe.
The next step is to ignore the soup until it’s time to make the cornbread (the first night of black bean soup at my house is always served with cornbread – leave a comment below if you want that recipe). The soup will take care of itself if you have it on a flame tamer or a very, very low flame with a heavy pot. As my oven preheats for the cornbread I give the soup a couple of stirs then scoop out some of the beans and mash them with MMPM to thicken things up a bit. If you prefer a brothier soup with lots of yummy beans floating around you don’t have to mash things up. Personal choice.
L.C. recommends a squeeze of fresh lime juice to finish things off. I decided to go her one better once and added two cut up limes which I then threw into the pot for the last hour of simmering. The results were nasty. The soup had a bitter tang to it that no amount of yoghurt could soften. Ever since then my family stays away from limes with our black bean soup. However if you just give your black bean soup a judicious squeeze of lime juice you should be fine.