Yeah, I’m one of those people who likes to talk a lot about my heritage. Why wouldn’t I, since I’m half-Puerto Rican; descended from residents of an island known for its gorgeous women, beautiful palm-speckled coastlines, and delicious food?
I’ve only been to Puerto Rico once. I was 11 years old and my father took me with him to see his eldest niece get married. I remember very little about the ceremony or reception…other than having my first experience with Jordan almonds, which were painted to look like tiny robin’s eggs and possibly the highest concentration of sugar I’d been exposed to at that point in my life. I set about collecting them from the other tables in what I thought was a covert operation, but in retrospect was likely just tolerated by the guests (I imagine them winking at my father, muttering “cute kid”, or possibly “someone should put a leash on that creature” and going back to their meals).
I probably ate about 60 Jordan almonds that day, and my tongue was a remarkable shade of pale green for some time afterwards. Clearly my obsession with food (read: eating) started early.
I can hardly recall the house in San Juan where we stayed or the hotel where my uncle worked. My memories are crystal clear, however, when it comes to the incredible meals I was privy to during my visit.
Plantains fried in pork fat. Tropical fruits of all colors and creeds. Rice cooked for so long the bottom parts fried into a thick nearly-burnt layer that was torn into pieces and eaten out of the pan – this is called “pegao” (directions are near the bottom of the page). Fresh coconuts right off the tree with their thick green husks still clinging to the shell. Stock pots of meat stews or beans cooked slowly all day on the back burner and filling the house with rich smells of cumin, peppers, and onions. Delicious.
My great aunt and uncle (Elsie and Ralph) were kind enough to take us in and feed us for a night while we were in Puerto Rico. Never had I seen so many things cooked in actual grease (my mother was a staunch butter-substitute supporter at the time). Sitting in Elsie and Ralph’s kitchen and savoring fresh coconut ice cream, surrounded by more family than I’d previously known, is a visceral memory for me of the Puerto Rican half of my heritage.
I love single-pot cooking. I think of friends gathering in the kitchen, drinking sangria (or horchata, or margaritas) laughing and joking, and occasionally stirring the contents of the pot on the stove. Maybe there’s an assembly line making fresh tortillas; maybe there’s music, maybe there’s dancing. This is what Elsie’s recipe means to me.
My parents both lost their parents before I was born – I don’t have much family, and the history that I do know is fragmented. The one thing I DO have is this recipe, passed down from Elsie to my mother, from Mom to me, for habichuelas: a slow-cooked bean dish that was served to my father when he was a little boy growing up on the island.
Traditional cooking and family recipes are tricky things to transcribe. What exactly *is* a handful? A dash? A pinch? How long is “a while” in real time? I have done the best I can to recreate this recipe in a way that makes sense, but the best thing that anyone can do to honor this cooking style is to cook it by feel. Taste it at each step. Make it your own.
In this way, traditional recipes live on through the cooks that prepare them, and the families that sit down together to enjoy them. I hope that you enjoy this one as much as I do.
2-3 c dried beans (pinto, kidney, black, or a combination)
2 Tbsp olive or sunflower oil
2 bell peppers (any color), seeded and diced
1 large yellow onion, diced
3 ripe tomatoes, stems removed and roughly chopped
1 bay leaf (1/2 of a CA bay laurel leaf, which has a much stronger flavor than commercial bay).
1-2 tsp powdered cumin
1 tsp paprika
1 tsp chili powder or chipotle (optional – this will make it quite spicy)
sea salt and fresh ground pepper to taste
The night before you are planning on cooking, you will need to soak the beans (this step softens them, making them cook faster). I do this by filling mason jars roughly 1/4 full of dry beans, and then filling the jar up with water or vegetable stock. Put the jars in the refrigerator. Left overnight, the beans will absorb the liquid and become plump and soft. The next morning, the jar should be nearly full of these rehydrated beans.
In a large non-reactive stock pot, heat 2 Tbsp of oil (I’m sure my Puerto Rican ancestors would roll over in their graves if they knew I was making this recipe without pork fat, so I feel compelled to clarify: use a few diced strips of bacon or lardons in this step if you like. When I learned to cook this dish, I was a vegetarian, and had altered the recipe to be meat-less. I like to be able to serve habichuelas at parties – following this recipe, it is vegan…as well as being gluten and dairy-free. In the original recipe, there were likely ham hocks galore. Sorry, Elsie).
Sweat the onions until they are translucent, and add the peppers. Cook until soft. Toss in the spices and the bay leaf and stir until everything is coated with the spices and there are no lumps.
Add the diced tomatoes, and simmer until the tomatoes have broken down a bit (they’ll look a bit like a thin tomato sauce at this step). Add the rehydrated beans, as well as any remaining water/stock in the jars. Add more water if the liquid does not cover the beans in the pot.
Now comes the waiting. The habichuelas should simmer, covered, for several hours before serving. The longer they can sit, the more the flavors will meld. Sometimes I even make this dish extra-specially ahead of time so that it can sit overnight before I serve it.
Habichuelas can be served many ways. Traditionally, it is served over rice (remember that pegao? Try it). I like it eaten in a bowl with some melted cheese on top (like chili), or wrapped in a tortilla with salad greens, cheese, avocado, etc (like a burrito or soft taco).
These beans also make a killer tostada or taco salad addition. Heat them up and spoon them over a bed of greens, and garnish with cheese, diced onion, tomato, avocado, and crumbled tortilla chips (or torn-up fried tortillas).
For breakfast, serve a plate of hot habichuelas with a fried egg and some fresh salsa.
For dessert…no, I’m kidding. But you can see that this dish is versatile and is a great staple to have around the house. I make BIG pots of habichuelas at least twice a month.