They call beans "the poor man's meat" because they are full of protein. But beans are not a complete protein. They're missing some essential amino acids that are readily supplied by animal sources such as meat or eggs or by simple grains. That's why you so often see beans paired with grains in cultures around the world.
In Cuba, the next destination on the virtual world tour our "food appreciation" classes are taking, black beans and rice rank as a cultural icon. Add some fried plantains on the side and you have a meal that any Cuban would instantly recognize.
Normally we would prepare our beans by soaking dried beans overnight in plenty of water, then cooking them with onion, bay leaf and thyme. But for purposes of our classes, we used canned black beans from Goya, an excellent substitute. Simply scoop the beans into a colander and rinse with water.
Cuban black beans couldn't be simpler. Just add a few common vegetables--onion, green bell pepper and red bell pepper--and a little cumin for flavor. Yet the aroma of the beans simmering on the stove transfixes anyone who comes near and children quickly devour the finished beans with their meaty Latin flavor.
To prepare the beans, cut a peeled onion into small dice. Add to it 1/2 large green bell pepper and 1/2 large red bell pepper, each cut into small dice, plus 2 cloves garlic, finely chopped. Heat 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil in a heavy pot over moderate heat. Add the onion, peppers and garlic and season with 1/2 teaspoon salt. Lower heat to low and cook, covered, for about 10 minutes, or until the vegetables are soft.
Empty a 30-ounce can of black beans into a colander and rinse thoroughly (or cook your own beans). Mix beans into pot with sauteed vegetables. Stir in 1 teaspoon ground cumin. Replace cover and cook about 40 minutes, or until the beans have started to give up some of their starch to create a sauce. (If the beans are too dry, add a little water.) Variations call for adding bay leaf, oregano, vinegar or olive oil to the beans. They all sound good, but they're not necessary. Some cooks like to mash some of the beans and add them back to the pot for a thicker sauce.
White rice has become the default rice around the world, but that is strictly a matter of status. People came to consider white rice as more refined and cultured. Brown rice was for poor people. In fact, brown rice has it all over its white cousin because so much of the nutrition--fiber, vitamins, minerals--is located in the bran. Remove the bran and all you have a lesser-quality starch. We are trying to teach our students to avoid starches that contribute to diabetes and obesity.
Quality brown rice has a wonderful chewiness and full flavor. I normally use a bulk brown rice from Whole Foods. But for these lessons I chose a long grain brown rice from Lundberg that cooked up big and fluffy--no clumping here. Just add the beans and you'll soon be serving seconds.