Thursday, April 5, 2007

Hot and Sour Black Beans

One of the problems with eating out in the United States, even in such culturally diverse areas New York, is that Middle American culinary sensibilities infect almost everything that comes out of a kitchen. What does that mean for you and me? It means that when you are served fermented black bean sauce in a “Chinese” restaurant, it tastes sweet; it means that the spaghetti you order in an Italian restaurant comes covered with canned sauce; it means that you have to cut raw jalapeno peppers into your “hot” salsa to make it spicy. Yuck.

Well, for those of us who cannot handle the gastronomic mediocrity out on the street, here’s a little something to tide you over at home. It’s been a few years since I’ve been given full reign over a western kitchen, and I am slowly, ever so slowly, rounding my western cooking skills back into shape. I discovered this recipe a few days ago when I was fooling around in the kitchen and was pleased with the result. The flavor is sour and pungent, with just enough spice to keep you awake.

Cooking time: under 20 minutes

You will need:

-12 oz cooked or canned black beans sitting in little bit of the cooking water.
-Two ripe tomatillos. If you can’t handle the pungent flavor of the tomatillos, substitute one of the tomatillos with a tomato.
-one small or medium white onion
-two cloves of garlic
-two to four jalapenos
-two tablespoons of cilantro or parsley
-cooking oil
-salt and pepper to taste.

Here’s what you need to do:

Dice the onions and jalapenos and mix them together on your cutting board. Finely chop the tomatillos, set them in a bowl, and mush them with a spoon. Heat up a dollop of oil (corn oil works for me) in a deep saucepan or wok over medium-high heat, and throw in your onion and jalapeno. You’ll need to stir your onions to keep them from burning, though I suggest letting them blacken a little bit on one side for a more rustic and smokey flavor. When you do this, you probably want to turn on the fan over your stove or you might risk choking yourself on the onion and chili smoke. Let this, your base, cook down until the onions begin turning translucent and then throw in your chopped tomatillos. Keep an eye on the tomatillos. You should see them begin to shed water, but not as much as a tomato. If your tomatillos seem a little bit too dry, add a few spoonfuls of water to the pan and stir. After the tomatillos have been cooking for a minute or so, stir in the garlic and let the tomatillos reduce for another minute. Now it’s bean time. Dump in your 12 ounces of beans and cooking liquid and stir the mixture well. When the beans begin to bubble, turn off the stove, spoon in your cilantro or parsley, add a couple pinches of salt and pepper, and fold the mixture once or twice.

Guess what. You’re Done! Enjoy your pungent black beans with warm blue corn tortillas and Columbian farmer’s cheese. Feel free to garnish with more cilantro, some shredded lettuce, and a little bit of lime.

There! A little bit of fluff to tide our blog over.


hcduvall said...

I sit here, commenting in defense of Middle America. Americans everywhere typically have lame tastes, not just those in our great central states.

Alternatively, if that's being used as a class instead of geographic descriptor, I have no objections.

HoBs said...

If you drain the bean liquid and mash up the beans before adding to the rest, your recipe would make nice refried beans too. The wonders of which I discovered after America Test Kitchen (wonderful show once I realized it wasn't an infomercial) pointed out that while canned refried beans are universally nasty, homemade ones are easy and fantastic.

Hm, somehow I always wind up being the relatavist, but while my first reaction is to agree that most Americans have lame tastes, but why should American tastes be any worst than any other country?

All countries have parochial tastes. American-Chinese food is certainly not Chinese. But that's true everywhere. You can find Indian-style Chinese food places in US if you look hard enough.

I used to try to explain why some countries have good food and others bad using economics and access to spices (very Marxist) to explain why certain countries have better food than others. Though by those criteria, English food should be good, which it plainly isn't.

And is Middle America any different than Middle anywhere else? When you travel, you tend to try to get the best food on offer. In the US, if you just eat at the best places, then most would agree that those are among the best in the world.

There is certainly bad food everywhere. Traveling without the benefit of local guides, I've had many bad meals in Japan, Turkey, Vietnam (all countries known for good food). Nearly all French bistro food, I think is awful. Traveling with a tour group, had pretty lousy Chinese food in China. Italy may be the exception actually where I was almost everywhere happy.

It could be that middle American tastes are especially contemptible only because they are familiar (as the saying goes).

Something that always amused me was how the show I hate most on NPR (Prarie Home Companion) was the favorite show of my Spanish friend, who liked the "Americaness" of it.

So I guess I would go one further step than Duvall suggested. Take out the American too, and the statement should be "Middle" people have lame tastes.

Chengora said...

Cool...I'll try this out when I get back from Taiwan. Oh, by the way, I'm going to Taiwan next week.

And of course, the food will be excellent. :-)

Interesting ideas, Hobs. It got me wondering whether "middle" is the issue, or if it's because middle means "don't have a cuisine of their own." Now, you can certainly have bad examples of particular types of cuisines (pick any restaurant in DC). But, for the cuisine as a whole, the ones I would say most people typically think of (British, American, French bistro) are also marked by a mixing of lots of other techniques, influences, etc. Sometimes, in the hands of a master chef (Morimoto, Cafe Atlantico = awesome) or given enough time, this morphs into cuisine: considered, balanced (both internally and with other dishes), and taste-tested food. But more often than not it's does Stewie put it?...a "culinary abortion."

Anyway, I will carefully observe my grandma's not-so-secret recipe for "lo ba" (that slow stew of pork stomach - yum! - and eggs) and report my own recipe soon. It really is good, but probably easier to accomplish if you have a grandmother whose principal joy is the early morning shopping run.

And, Jonny, I love garlic, so what do you think about increasing the amount?

hcduvall said...

I've always thought of American tastes as being sort of blandish but uniquely comfortable with it because the country's taste has developed with introduction of mass-production and food processes. (As opposed to say, the British adoption of curry as favorite dish, despite the shortcomings of their native creations). When canning and the like was introduced, it was welcomed since it freed up time and leisure, and perhaps becoming accustomed to food like this lowered expectations while conceding flavor was alright.

The key feature of American food shopping, for immediate consumption or otherwise, for most people is the convinience. We don't want it to taste bad, but it doesn't have to be good, just good enough--and don't expect any different from the local Chinese joint or Chili's.

God I hate Prairie Home Companion.

Jonny America said...

I guess what I had in mind when I used the word "Middle American" was the average WASPy middle class culinary sensibility, and not cusine from the American Midwest. Duvall sums up my impression of this culinary sensibilty well as bland and manufactured. The sort of epitome of embraced mediocrity.

Several typically middle American dishes come to mind. How about boiled mashed sweet potatoes served with marshmellows. Or "salad" made with canned pineapple and coolwhip. Yuck. Anybody like casseroles? Meatloaf? This style of cooking is pretty deeply ingrained here. Think about it. When international cuisine is "Americanized," what happens to it? It becomes sweeter, blander, has thicker sauce, and is often served with fried thingies. Is there any entree served in Chilis that doesn't come slathered in some sweet sauce? Look what happened to coffee for Christ's sake. It's been turned into a syrupy slush drink at Starbucks.

Chengoria, I wonder if the garlic will become overpowered by the tomatillos. Give it a try and report back. I suspect that you won't taste it unless you add a whole lot more.

Hobs, regarding the bad food you had in China, certainly some of it was the tour. Another factor was the location. China's Northeast, including Beijing, and the Shanghai areas are known for their boring bland cooking styles, and heavy uses of oil. Traditional Beijing fare is absolutely vile.

One final note is that this recipe probably works better with a white bean. Black beans might not be the best partner for the tomatillos.

HoBs said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
HoBs said...

hm, i dunno, i had a friend from growing up whose mom cooked a lot of those "american" foods. i loved her bread pudding. her potato chip encrusted chicken was good at the time, but more for the sheer grease factor probably.

and as chengora said, all of that can be elevated. BLT is a French chef who does elevated American food. As do many others.

randomly, so having dined at Morimoto's philly place twice, once when it opened and once recently, I would say i was seroiusly disappointed. though don't know about the new york one.

Cafe Atlantico i like, though more as a fantastic business model than as fantastic food. chef jose andres seems to be just churning out fashionably hip but in the end safe reasonably priced gourmet cuisine all in the same up and coming neighborhood. been to many of them, all quite good.

cafe atlantico - fashionably hip but safe and reasonably priced latin
jaleo - fashionably hip but safe and reasonably priced portuguese
oyamel - fashionably hip but safe and reasonably priced Mexican
zatinya - fashionably hip but safe and reasonably priced greek

and by his partners:

ten penh - fashionably hip but safe and reasonably priced Vietnamese
ceiba - fashionably hip but safe and reasonably priced cuban
acadiana - fashionably hip but safe and reasonably priced cajun

despite being different cuisines and different restaurants, there is something disturbingly uniform about them all. though since they're all uniformly good, i approve.

but totally agreed that there is a lot of bad ethnic food in dc. that said, it's cool that you can find stuff like west african and the like.

there was a recent econ paper that compared food habits in the us and otherwise, and found that americans favored convenience foods only because they are wealthier and there are fewer house wives. As Europe has started to converge to the US in wealth and female employment, they have started to adopt similar tastes, and as a result, similar waist lines.

oh, one step in the refried beans that neglected to mention is that beans should be boiled for a good 10-20 mintues before mashing. you could mash without that, but a lot harder to mash. also, technically you should up the oil/butter content, but you really don't need for a healthier option.