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Everything You Want to Know About Black Beans

Updated on July 17, 2010
Black beans, also known as turtle beans, have a long history has a dietary staple.
Black beans, also known as turtle beans, have a long history has a dietary staple.

Seven thousand years ago in what is today Peru in South America, Mesoamerican Indians discovered the nutritional qualities of beans, among them black beans.  Like the potato, beans quickly became a staple of their diet, must as it still is today in much of the latin cuisine.  Black beans would have been grown by coastal and rainforest villagers where the weather is warm and moist.  Grown on vines, the beans would have been harvested, stored for food and traded to villages in the mountains.

Black beans belong to the family Phaseolus vulgaris, and are closely related to other common beans such as kidney beans, green beans, pinto beans, shell beans, white beans and yellow beans.  All varieties are indigenous to the Americas.  They were exported out of the New World in the 1500s when explorers took them back to Europe.  From there, their popularity grew and common beans are now grown throughout the world, including the Americas, Europe, Africa, and Asia.

The black bean is aptly named.  It is small, almost always less than a half inch, and black with a shiny hard shell.  This shiny shell is likely how the black bean also gained its other name, turtle bean.  In Spanish, they are called “frijoles negros”. The flavor of the black bean is often compared to that of a mushroom.  When cooked, the bean retains its shape and has a velvety, smooth, creamy texture.  Its flavor can be strong which is why it is often served with white rice.  The bean is sold in grocery stores in cans or dried.  When dried, the beans require an extended amount of cooking to soften and become digestible.  The hard black shell softens as well during cooking and is never discarded as it contains much of the flavor and nutritional value of the bean.  For even more flavor, many latin recipes call for sliced green peppers and sliced onions to be cooked with the beans.

Black and Kidney Beans

Nutritionally, the black bean remains an important part of Mesoamerican Indian culture.  They are very high in fiber, folate, protein, antioxidants, and vitamin B, along with a lot of other vitamins and minerals. When served with a grain such as white rice, black beans make a whole protein, which is one of the reasons they are often included in a vegetarian diet. Since the beans are cheap to grow and harvest, they are an important part of a balanced diet for people around the world.

The first step to cooking black beans is to run the dried beans through your hands under running water to clean the beans and remove imperfect beans and other objects such as small stones.  Place the beans in a crockpot and cover to four inches over the beans.  Cook on high for one hour.  Reduce the temperature to low, add crushed garlic, sliced onions, sliced green peppers, and salt and pepper to taste.  Cook on low for about eight hours or until the shells are soft.  Add sugar and continue cooking until the beans are very soft and the broth soupy.  Refrigerate and serve the next day.  This allows the flavor of the beans to mature fully.

The most common way to serve black beans is over white or yellow rice.  In Mexico they are served with broth in a small bowl after the main meal.  Cheese is often added, and if beer is added they are called “frijoles borrachos” (drunk beans).  Black bean soup is a new favorite way to eat black beans.  After cooking, the beans are pureed into a smooth consistency, then served with shredded cheese.

Black beans add a new dimension to dinner for those people who traditionally do not eat beans with their meat.  In Cuban cuisine black beans are served over white rice with palomilla steak – a thin, pan-fried steak – and with roasted pork loin.  Adding black beans to the menu will add lots of vitamins and minerals as well as a new flavor to any diet.

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