There are moments in my life that remain as clear in my mind as if they happened yesterday. My first bowl of black bean soup is one of those. My friend Joy and I were spending the day in Berkeley. We were close to Chez Panisse and stopped in to see if they could seat us for a late lunch. It is housed in a small unassuming building that is easy to miss if you don’t know what you are looking for. I had never eaten there but had read about it since it opened and was eager to try it. We were lead to a table in an alcove banked by a wall of windows. It was one of those brilliantly clear, cool spring days in California that make you incredibly happy to be alive. The sun was dancing across our table as we read through the menu.
When I saw they were serving black bean soup, I was a bit nervous. I did not really like beans and my only experiences with bean soup had been anything but positive. When I was a child my mother was challenged to feed all six of us healthy and filling meals on a very tight budget. When we got to the end of the month and money was extremely tight, she would make navy bean soup. My mother was a wonderful woman but cooking was not her forte. No matter how much I tried I just couldn’t get that navy bean soup down. My mother never used any seasoning beyond salt and pepper, so the soup was made with just beans and water. It was one of the few meals where I would go to bed hungry. But this was soup made by the staff at Chez Panisse and I would give it a go.
When the soup arrived, it was a revelation for me. Thick and velvety, topped with a cooling cream and garnished with lime wedges, it blew my mind. I never knew soup could be that delicious. They had cooked the beans with other vegetables and seasonings that gave the final soup a deep earthiness with hints of sweetness and spice. It was so good that from that day on I looked at beans in a new way. They were no longer repellent to me, an ingredient to be avoided at all costs. Now I look for opportunities to add them to our meals and where possible, make them the star.
Today’s soup, from the Whole Foods Market Cookbook, is full of smokiness and heat from chipotle chiles and there is an unexpected addition of cocoa making it a taste little like Mexican mole. I like to pair it with a simple avocado cream and fresh tomato salsa. These add a creamy coolness, pop of bright acid, and crunchy texture to the smooth soup. It is heaven in every bite!
Black beans have been an integral part of Mexican cuisine for thousands of years and are an inexpensive source of protein. Black beans are the obvious first choice for this soup, but if you like you can use other types as well. Any dried bean can be used, pinto, white, cannellini, or borlotti, would all be delicious. You could even use split peas with this same combination of flavorings for a Mexican take on an old favorite.
Chipotles en Adobo, one of my favorite ingredients, are jalapeno peppers that have been smoked and dried then reconstituted in a piquant sauce. Usually made with vinegar, garlic, herbs and spices, it adds a slightly sour acidic balance to dishes. The longer the chiles steep in the sauce, the hotter it becomes, so add it judiciously.
When you look at an avocado, you have to wonder who the first person was that figured out that this ugly, bumpy, fist-sized lump was edible. They are easy to peel, but you have to know the trick to safely get the pit out of the center. Cut the avocado in half lengthwise, sliding the knife around the pit. Twist the halves apart, and holding the one with the pit in the palm of your hand, smack the pit with the blade of a heavy-duty chef’s knife. Twist the knife and the pit will come right out of the meat. Use the largest shallow spoon you have, and run it between the meat and the skin, scooping it out in one motion. You can then slice or dice it as needed. If this method scares you or you have children helping in the kitchen, you can use a small spoon to scoop under the pit and pop it out. Avocados oxidize and turn brown quickly, so don’t prepare this until just before you are ready to serve.
Most Americans consider jars of picante sauce to be the ultimate Mexican sauce. Making it from scratch is infinitely better tasting. If you have never made your own you’re really missing out on an surprisingly easy and fresh condiment. Grab a sharp knife, cutting board, big bowl, and chop away. It is as simple as throwing tomatoes, onions, chiles, and a few other ingredients together, tossing quickly, and then it is ready to serve. Once you’ve made your own, you’ll never go back!
This is a very filling soup that will keep you satisfied for many hours. Use this recipe if you want a healthy vegetarian option or when money is short. Soup is a terrific choice for dinner. You can throw everything together, leave it to simmer, and come back hours later for a substantial hot meal. I like to puree this soup, but leave it chunky for an even faster and easier bowl of pure happiness.
Kitchen Skill: How to Ripen an Avocado
To ripen an avocado, place it in a brown paper bag and leave it on the counter for a day or two until it gives slightly when gently pressed. If you are short on time and need ripe avocados quickly, add an apple to the paper bag. Apples give off ethylene gas which hastens the ripening process.
- 2 cups (dry) black beans, rinsed
- 2 tbsp olive oil
- 2 cups chopped red onion
- 1 medium red bell pepper, seeded and chopped
- 1 medium green bell pepper, seeded and chopped
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 tbsp dried oregano, or 3 tbsp fresh
- 1 tbsp ground cumin
- 3 chopped canned chipotle chiles in adobo sauce
- 2 tbsp adobo sauce from canned chipotle peppers
- 12 cups fresh cold water
- 1 bay leaf
- 1 tbsp unsweetened cocoa powder
- 3/4 cup orange juice
- 1/2 cup minced fresh cilantro
- 6 scallions, thinly sliced
- Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
- 1/4 cup dry sherry, white wine, or light rum, if desired
- Soak the black beans 6 to 8 hours or up to overnight prior to cooking. Drain and rinse soaked beans before using.
- Heat the olive oil in a large pot over medium-high heat. Add the red onion and chopped peppers, saute until the onion is translucent, about 3 to 5 minutes. Reduce the heat to medium-low, add the garlic, oregano, cumin, chipotle chilies, and adobo sauce, and saute for 1 minute. Add the cold water, bay leaf, and beans. Bring the soup to a boil, then lower to a simmer and cook uncovered for 1-1/2 to 2 hour, until the beans are tender.
- Stir in the cocoa powder, orange juice, cilantro, scallions, and salt; add the alcohol if you want and continue to simmer for 5 minutes to blend the flavors.
- Serve as is or puree in a food processor, blender, or use an immersion blender if you prefer a smooth soup. Top each bowl with a couple of tablespoons of the avocado cream and a dollop of fresh tomato salsa.
- Yield: 6 to 8 servings
- 2 medium avocados, peeled, seeded, and chopped
- 1/4 cup sour cream
- 2 tsp grated onion or shallot
- Freshly squeezed lime juice, to taste
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper
- Place avocado in a nonreactive bowl and smash until fairly smooth. Stir in sour cream and onion. Add enough lime juice to thin it enough to drizzle over the soup. Add some salt and pepper, taste and adjust seasonings. If it is too tart, add a pinch of sugar.
- Yield: about 1/2 cup
- 6 Roma tomatoes, seeded and finely chopped
- 3 tbsp shallot or red onion, minced
- 1/2 tsp finely minced fresh garlic
- 2 tbsp cilantro or flat leaf parsley, chopped
- 1/2 to 1 jalapeno chile pepper, seeded and finely minced
- 2 tbsp lime or lemon juice
- 2 tbsp olive oil
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper
- Combine all the ingredients in a bowl. Set aside for at least 30 minutes so that the flavors can blend. Store, covered, in the refrigerator.
- If you want more heat, leave the seeds and ribs in the jalapenos. For those who do not like cilantro, flat leaf parsley makes a good substitute.
- Yield: 2 to 3 cups