The holiday celebrations of my youth were a conglomeration of American, European, and Caribbean customs. Even with that mishmash of generations, languages, and foods, we took it all very seriously. Fine china, sparkling silver, and our best dresses were absolutes.
As an adult, and with my own family, I’ve personalized many of these traditions, often dropping the formality altogether. Thanksgiving and Christmas are perfect examples. I haven’t had turkey in a decade, because no one likes it. Blasphemy, I know!
The dishes on my table these days represent that same love for adding a special twist. My spicy black beans are a perfect example. In my upcoming release, Consenting Adults, I include this dish in a very unusual Thanksgiving celebration. (You’ll have to read the book to find out the extent of the craziness.) An eclectic group of friends adopt each other as family and create a cherished ritual imbued with their personalities.
This is a situation I understand quite well. For my family, my spicy black beans represent a nourishing and delicious dish that honors our Caribbean background and our American home. It is shared with my soul family—born and found—as part of the ever-changing celebration.
One of the difficulties in sharing this with you is the fact that no recipe exists. I learned to cook beans the way all the women in my family did, I believe. By watching, by adding my own unique twist, by testing and tasting and evolving. During my years as a vegan, I omitted the requisite ham hock, but these days, I crave that smoky, rich flavor. Some years, it’s a soup, while others it’s a stew.
The coolest part of this recipe is the ability to make it what you need. I know that many families find comfort in the predictability of long-standing traditions. I’ve been honored to share in many of these, and I approach them like a child seeing snow for the first time. It’s fun and interesting and heartwarming. For me, it represents a connection to the past and the ultimate changeability of the future.
From my family to yours, I send you a hearty hug, the warmth of loved ones, and something in your belly that puts a smile on your face.
PE Kavanagh’s Spicy Black Beans
1 pound dried black beans, rinsed and picked over to remove any stones
1 ½ green peppers, stemmed and seeded
10 garlic cloves
1 smoked ham hock
2 bay leaves
5 teaspoons salt, or to taste
¼ cup olive oil
4 slices thick bacon, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
2 yellow onions, diced
1-2 jalapeños, stemmed and finely chopped (depends on how spicy you like it)
1 teaspoon dried oregano
½ teaspoon ground cumin
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
¼ teaspoon cayenne
1 tablespoon tomato paste
3 tablespoons white vinegar
1. Soak the black beans overnight. Drain the water.
2. Cut 1 green pepper into a small dice. Finely chop 4 of the garlic cloves. Put the green pepper and garlic into a large pot with the beans, ham hock, bay leaves. Add 2 quarts water and bring to a boil. Cover the pot and simmer until the beans are tender, approximately 2-3 hours.
3. Meanwhile, make a sofrito. Dice the remaining ½ green pepper. Finely chop the remaining garlic. Heat the olive oil in a very large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the bacon and cook, stirring occasionally, until it starts to brown, about 5 minutes. Add the green pepper and onion and cook, stirring, until slightly softened, about 3 minutes. Add the garlic, jalapeño (leave out the seeds if you don’t want it too spicy. I keep mine in ;) ), oregano, cumin, black pepper, cayenne, tomato paste and 2 teaspoons salt and stir for another minute. Pour in the vinegar and scrape any browned bits from bottom of pan with a wooden spoon. This is your sofrito.
4. When the beans are cooked, discard the bay leaf. Remove and set aside the ham hock and let it cool. Pull the meat from the ham hock, leaving behind any tough or gristly bits. Chop the ham into small pieces and return it to the bean pot. Add the sofrito.
5. Stir the beans well and bring to a boil over medium heat, then lower to a simmer and cook, uncovered, for 20 minutes or so, skimming any foam from the top. Taste for salt and spice before serving.