If you’re ever in Sydney’s inner west, swing by a restaurant known as Baja Cantina in Glebe and you’ll understand why the top end of my food-rating spectrum is food for which you would consider moving countries.
Is that a little extreme? You might think so if you had never eaten the nachos at Baja Cantina. The first time I tried them, my little head exploded with the colours, tastes and textures of a country I had never seen; the salty crunch of thick, hand-cooked corn chips, creamy, gently spiced beans, fire-laced salsa and jalapenos and zesty guacamole married in perfect harmony by smatterings of mature cheese and a dollop of sour cream.
I’m getting a little emotional just thinking of it.
My bestie and I have been to Baja Cantina hundreds of times, the colourful walls bearing silent witness to our laughter, tears, venting sessions, tantrums, dramas and soul-searching conversations that can only occur over a plate of Sydney’s finest nachos.
It was Stephy who introduced me to black beans, and I’ve never looked back. Black turtle beans have a dense texture, unlike the starchy flouriness of pinto beans, and stand up to flavours well. They require lengthy cooking, but are very low-maintenance and the end result is a delicious, inky, creamy and deeply flavoursome dish.
250g dried black beans
1 onion, cut into eighths
5 cloves garlic, peeled
Six large sprigs of thyme
Five bay leaves
Two slices of bacon
Normally, you would begin a bean-based recipe by soaking the beans to reduce your risk of being poisoned by the toxin phytohaemagglutinin. With this particular recipe there’s no risk of that since you cook them for ages anyway, but you can soak them for a few hours to reduce cooking time. If you don’t have time for that, it doesn’t matter – you might just have to keep them on the stove for a bit longer.
Place the onion, garlic into a pot with a splash of oil and cook gently for a few minutes.
Add the black beans, thyme and bay leaves and cover with water. Bring to a boil and simmer for one hour. Skim off any scum that appears on top and make sure they’re not boiling dry, adding water if necessary.
After an hour, add the bacon and a pinch of salt and return to a simmer for another hour. You can leave the bacon out if you’re vegetarian, but I find it provides a good weighty saltiness to the beans.
Beans reach a stage where the skin begins to lift off if you blow on them. You actually want to take these beans beyond that stage, to the point that they provide no resistance when you want to mash them.
After the beans are cooked, you’ve got a few options. The Mexican culinary goddess Thomasina Miers, of Wahaca fame, takes the cooked beans and fries them with a large amount of lard or butter plus additional onion and garlic, then processes them until smooth. She serves them with sour cream and a crumbled mature cheese.
I absolutely love Wahaca’s frijoles and they have never failed to transport me to the heights of culinary bliss, but at home in the tiny kitchen I find the second stage too fiddly and guilt-inducing. Instead, I take a fork to the cooked beans and mash until creamy. Don’t drain the cooking liquid, as you’ll need it to store the beans and to mash any leftovers the following day. Before reheating in a microwave, cover the beans with a little water to prevent them from drying out.
I like to serve frijoles negros on a pile of fresh, crunchy salad topped with pickled jalapenos and guacamole. A handful of corn chips rounds everything off nicely.