Dinner. Party. Two of my more favorite words which, together, equal a pretty glorious occasion. This week we had the pleasure of hosting two college friends of mine, one of whom is both vegetarian and visiting from Singapore, and the other of whom I owe an undying debt of gratitude for putting up with me for three years as my college roommate. They both reminded me of some of my early culinary endeavors, though I recollect even more clearly the fortune of having our apartment freezer stocked with slice after slice of pillowy Sicilian pizza complements of my roommate’s father, who runs several pizzerias in Pennsylvania. Suffice it to say we never went hungry.
For me, part of the fun in hosting a dinner party is the planning. I run through and mentally savor half a dozen menus the same way some people, I suppose, take enjoyment from planning a vacation. Vegetarian – check. Makes good use of ingredients on hand – check. Can be prepped in advance and won’t keep me away from our guests – check. And kid-friendly – check!
I suppose I could have taken us back to the good ol’ days with a Sicilian pie but there is just no way I could ever top (pun intended) the pizza my college roommate’s dad makes. So this week’s menu went in a completely different direction: Mexican.
Black bean soup, acorn squash stuffed with Zarela Martinez’s recipe for creamy rice casserole, and a departure from the Mexican theme with apple crisp and vanilla ice cream for dessert. If you’ve read earlier posts like my one for Chiles Rellenos, you already know how much I value Zarela Martinez’s “Food From My Heart.” It’s worth seeking out a copy!
After flipping through cookbooks and online collections for a good black bean soup recipe I struck out on my own and developed the version below; too many recipes relied on smoked meats (bacon or ham hocks) to give the soup a deep flavor. The vegetarian recipes seemed to pale in comparison, using a lot of water as the base and just a smattering of veggies. I could do better, and I hope this recipe does Ms. Martinez proud, even if it isn’t one of hers.
My tricks for building flavor took a little advance planning but were worth it, giving the finished soup dimension and depth. And they were relatively easy: soaking the beans with a smoked onion and adding roasted tomatoes and a cup of fresh tomato juice to the soup. I cooked the soup in a slow cooker for five to six hours to allow great melding of flavors. I also roasted and smoked some fresh poblano peppers from Cherry Grove Organic Farm, though I didn’t incorporate them into the soup due to the disclosed pepper allergy of one of our guests. If you make this version you may choose to simmer poblano peppers in the soup before pureeing, or serve them diced on the side. You can also substitute one or two canned chipotle chiles which bring both heat and smoke to the party.
A fun trick for making this kid friendly is to serve it with a slew of toppings. We had cheddar cheese, diced avocado, Mexican crema (left over from the creamy rice casserole, this version is sour cream mixed with diced onion and cilantro), plain sour cream, and limes on the table. Also great would be fresh cilantro sprigs and some hot sauce.
This is a recipe I think you’ll come back to again and again, and maybe even tweak with your own touches. Enjoy!
Black Bean Soup with Avocado and Mexican Crema
1 pound dried black beans, picked
over and rinsed
1 onion, halved and smoked*…or, substitute
a regular onion
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 onion, diced
3 large garlic cloves, minced
3 ribs of celery, diced
3 carrots, diced
5 teaspoons ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1/2 teaspoon Kosher salt
Several grinds black pepper
3 bay leaves
1 cup, packed, of freshly roasted tomatoes** or about 1/2 cup of packaged sun-dried tomatoes or a very generous dollop tomato paste
1 cup tomato juice, reserved from prepping the roasted tomatoes if you have it
1 roasted, skinned and smoked* poblano pepper that has been seeded and diced — if you’re short on time, you can use a fresh poblano that has been seeded and diced…or even a green bell pepper if you’d prefer
3 cups vegetable stock
3 cups water
Garnishes for serving (use as many or few as you like): diced avocado, shredded white cheddar cheese, sour cream or Mexican crema***, the diced roasted poblano pepper (if not already incorporated into the soup), lime wedges, cilantro sprigs, hot sauce
Begin by soaking the beans to soften, either overnight or via the quick soak method in a large Dutch oven: add
enough water to cover the beans, toss in the smoked onion, and bring to a boil before turning off the heat and covering for at least an hour. When soft, strain, rinse and reserve the beans and discard the onion.
Using your slow cooker’s “brown” or “sauté” feature (or in a second Dutch oven set over medium-high heat), heat the olive oil and add the diced onion, celery, carrot, garlic, and a generous pinch salt. If using a fresh poblano or bell pepper, add that now too. Sweat vegetables to soften for 5 to 10 minutes and add cumin, cinnamon, cloves and bay leaves. Sauté for another minute until fragrant and add the soaked black beans, the tomatoes, tomato juice, vegetable stock and water (if using a roasted poblano and you want it incorporated into the soup base vs. used as a garnish, add that at this point as well).
Bring to a boil and then set the slow cooker to high, attach lid, and allow to bubble away for another five to six hours, stirring occasionally, until the stock is thick and the beans are quite soft. If cooking in a Dutch oven, bring to a boil and then reduce heat to low and cover, allowing to simmer for five to six hours with occasional stirring.
When ready to serve, remove the bay leaves and purée the soup in small batches in a blender, taking care not to overfill the blender or the hot soup will create steam and pressure in the container and explode out the top. You do NOT want to be scraping black bean soup off your ceiling. Return the puréed soup to the slow cooker or Dutch oven to keep warm. Taste and correct for seasonings, adding more salt if desired and several grinds of fresh pepper.
Serve in deep bowls, passing the toppings separately.
Serves: 8 to 10 adults and kiddies
*If you have time in advance, build an indirect fire in an outdoor grill and throw some wet hickory chips on the fire. Place the halved onion and the roasted and peeled poblano pepper on the cool side of the grill on a tin foil tray and allow to smoke for 15 to 30 minutes. The day before the party we were making grilled chicken anyway, so I used the opportunity to smoke the veggies after taking the chicken off the grill.
** To roast tomatoes, take 10 – 15 Roma or paste tomatoes, halve them and seed them over a colander and collect the juice, and roast them in a 350-degree oven on a parchment paper-lined baking sheet for several hours, until most of the moisture has evaporated…take care not to burn them though.
***Zarela Martinez’s version of Mexican crema is 1 cup sour cream mixed with 1/4 cup finely diced onion and 1/4 cup chopped cilantro. Add a squeeze of lime juice to take it over the top.
Parent rating: Four-and-a-half stars. Really lovely, with a complex flavor complemented by the fresh avocado and the crema. Not a drop remained in anyone’s bowl.
Kid rating: Four-and-a-half stars. When I say not a drop remained, I mean it…kids too! Both our girls had seconds and LOVED stirring in the cheddar cheese (it got all stringy and soft…lots of fun) and eating the avocado both in the soup and on the side. And while I thought the creamy rice casserole was going to be their favorite dish of the night, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that the black bean soup was the real star of the party. Winner!