Ed Smith explores the essential components of his kitchen cupboard. This time: black turtle beans
Image: Regula Ysewijn
In all, I’ve spent nearly a year travelling around central and South America, and I still find constant reminders of those times in the food I buy, cook and eat: the smell of a proper corn tortilla takes me back to humid walks up, down and around the Aztec temples of Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula; the relatively recent popularity in London’s restaurants of citrus-cured fish reminds me of the bowls and bowls of ceviche eaten along the coasts of Peru and Ecuador; and, at the edge of Borough Market, Porteña’s freshly-baked empanadas and dulce de leche-filled pastries make me think of many happy weeks walking and, well, eating around Argentina.
Nothing is quite so effective at evoking a vivid flashback, though, as a black turtle bean. To me, this seemingly ignoble inky pulse is Latin America. The unique smell once cooked, the meaty, dense bite, the starchy, creamy brown stock—all were ever present throughout my travels. I can picture, smell and taste the terracotta bowl of beans I ate immediately after landing in Cancun and quickly taking a bus to the edge of Chichen Itza.
They remained a near constant presence at mealtimes, puddled next to grilled meat and rice through Guatemala, Belize. Honduras, into Venezuela, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia, through the Caribbean and the southern US states, too. Sometimes they were souped and stewed, embellished with a little pork (as in Brazil and Cuba), but mostly they just served plain and loose. Filling, lubricating, strangely intoxicating.
Inky soups, dals, stews
Black turtle beans are unusual in the world of legumes and pulses in that they have this Latin American connection, rather than a French or Italian one. To be clear, they are not the same as the black beans found in Chinese and southeast Asian cuisine (which are fermented black soy beans). And though there’s some use of them in Indian cookery (perhaps through the historic Portuguese links to both Brazil and southwest India), the black urad lentil is a far more common provider of inky soups, dals and stews in the Indian sub-continent.
You don’t have to travel across the Atlantic to get them—just to Spice Mountain—but they do lend themselves to a style of food redolent of that hemisphere. Their deep, savoury flavour and creamy stock embolden and enrich a ground beef or venison chilli; they’re the perfect base for a burrito; they’re a taco or quesadilla filling in their own right; they act as intense, meaty black pearls flecked through a corn and avocado slaw; they can form a brilliant topping for a baked sweet potato; or with the same tuber, can be mashed into vegetarian burger patties; and when made into a soup, are far from the boring, monotone ingredient one might imagine—just a few other base ingredients, plus a little sour cream, lime and coriander at the end is all that is required. They are cheap, easy to cook and truly delicious.
“But, eurgh, you have to soak them in advance! And they take ages to cook!” This is not an issue. Really. If you get used to taking 10 seconds to measure out the beans and pour cold water over the top before going to bed, it’s a very simple thing to do to ensure great-tasting, tender-eating food. Also, it’s perfectly possible to speed things up by pouring boiling water over the beans you need and waiting just an hour before cooking. After that, it is a matter of the beans blip-blip-blipping over a gentle hob for about two and a half hours. It’s totally hands-free cooking and any leftovers freeze and reheat well.
Travelling taste buds
Sweat some onions, perhaps garlic, celery, or finely diced carrots. Add your beans and about four times the volume of water, and simmer away. Salt is fine (it doesn’t prevent the beans from becoming soft, but does stop the skin from bursting) but hold back on adding acid until they’re fully cooked (orange juice is a good partner, lemon and lime too). Most dishes are variations on this method, save where soaked beans are added to a stew or chilli that cooks over a similar time. They really are a brilliant ingredient with a unique flavour; and a very cost-effective way for your taste buds to travel.