We are celebrating Christmas in Brooklyn this year, and I will try my hardest, for the first time, to recreate the kind of feast my family puts together every Nochebuena. We might not play Puerto Rican Christmas music, or drink rum, but we will, indeed, eat black beans and rice, just like my grandmother used to make.
My grandmother never enjoyed cooking, nonetheless, she was able to master a handful of recipes like a professional. No matter how many talks we would have over the phone about how long to soak the beans for, or how much sugar was necessary to get the right balance of sweet to salty, she was the black bean queen and we were novices, attempting to master a recipe that required decades of practice.
The recipe was always the same, never precise, unarguable delicious. Dried beans would start soaking in the morning, then land in a pot with onions, garlic, green peppers, oregano, a bay leaf, bacon, and sugar. These beans were hardy and sweet, rich, and full of flavor; a family staple that would make its way into both Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve dinners.
I am not sure how the tradition started, since in my memory black beans have always been a staple at the dinner table no matter how humble or elaborate the meal was. It has always been something she would make when we would come over, whether just my sister and I, or the whole family.
When we were little, my sister and I loved spending the night at our grandmother’s house. We would always eat rice and beans; play dominos lying belly down on her cool terrazzo floor; and beat each other up over who was cheating while playing Spanish cards. Towards the end of the night we would scoop mountains of ice cream into cute little glass cups, sprinkle them with Nestle Quick and whip them into what I remember as the most delicious makeshift milkshakes. We would eventually pass out in what used to be our father and his brother’s old bedroom.
When my grandparents would invite the whole family over for dinner there was usually enough food to feed a battalion. Such Cuban feast started with freshly fried plantain chips and ended with mountains of rice, beans, and steak.
I shared my grandmother’s black bean recipe with you three years ago. As homage to that original recipe, I am sharing with you a recipe that is similar in essence and technique, but slightly different. This Rice and Beans dish is called Congris. It is a traditional Cuban recipe, in which rice and beans are cooked together. The black beans stain the rice black, hence the con-(with) gris-(gray) name. I was feeling playful and made this particular version with black rice instead of white. Feel free to use whatever you want- white, brown, short grain, long grain- it all works well. The dish is tasty, and well-balanced, savory, and full of the kind of Latin flavors that would take anybody out of this winter humdrum.
The second dish I am sharing with you was always served as a snack, right before dinner was served. Plantains were cut thin, then thrown into hot oil for a quick fry. These should only be served hot with just enough salt to season delicious, starchy plantains into something addictive!
Though humble, both of these dishes are traditional and festive, perfect for Holiday parties.
Fried Plantains Chips
Cook time 20-30 minutes
- 2 plantains
- 2 cups vegetable or sunflower seed oil
Start by peeling the plantains. Cut off both ends, then run a knife lengthwise through the plantain to help peel the skin off. Using either a mandolin or a very sharp knife cut the plantains into 1/16” slices. Set aside.
Place 2 cups of oil in a deep pot. Depending on the size of your pot, you might need to add more or less oil. You want to have at least two-three inches of oil in your pan. Place over medium-high heat. Let heat through for 5 minutes. To test how hot the oil is, take one of the slices and place it in the oil. If it starts bubbling immediately, your oil is ready for frying!
Using a metal slotted spoon, place a small handful of plantains into hot oil. Fry for approximately three minutes. They should turn golden and crispy within this time frame. If they turn brown, your oil is too hot. Reduce heat and let cool slightly before you continue to cook.
As soon as the three minutes have passed, transfer cooked plantains chips onto plate covered in paper towels. Sprinkle with salt, and set aside. Repeat until you have cooked through all batches. Once done serve immediately, tastes best when fresh out of the oil!
Congris (Black Rice and Beans)
Cook time 30 minutes
- 1 tbsp. olive oil
- ½ onion chopped
- 1 pinch of salt
- 3 garlic cloves
- ½ large green bell pepper
- 1 tsp. cumin powder
- 1 spring fresh oregano (sub out for 1 tsp. dried oregano)
- 1 cup rice (black, brown, or white)
- 1 can black beans
- 1 cup water
- 1 tsp. white wine or apple cider vinegar
If using black or brown rice, place in a large container with enough water to completely cover. Soak for an hour or two prior to cooking.
Place a large pot over medium heat. Add a tablespoon of olive oil and heat through for a couple of minutes. Add onions and salt. Cook over medium-low heat for five to seven minutes. Onions should start to become soft and translucent.
Stir in minced garlic cloves, green bell pepper, and cumin powder. Cook for another minute or two, then fresh or dried add oregano.
Add rice into pot and stir for a minute or two. Pour in the black beans, a cup of water, and tablespoon of vinegar. Once all the elements are in the pot, stir once. Let cook, uncovered over medium heat until most of the water has been evaporated. Cover, reduce heat to low and cook for another 20 minutes. Rice will be ready when soft, with a little bit of a bite.
Once fully cooked taste for seasoning. Add salt, and a quick drizzle of olive oil. Serve hot.