frijoles negros

Black turtle beans.
Black turtle beans.

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.

They're not exactly photogenic now. But you'll understand when you taste them.
They’re not exactly photogenic now. But you’ll understand when you taste them.

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.

Frijoles negros
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
oil
salt

Bay leaves and thyme are essential to this dish.
Bay leaves and thyme are essential to this dish.

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.

So beautiful in the pot!
So beautiful in the pot!

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.

Frijoles on salad.
Frijoles on salad.

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.

simple salsa

Those of you who are quick on the uptake (or just really passionate about food) have probably spotted the glaring problem with the photo on my guacamole entry.
Salsa, of course! It’s not there!

I had committed the culinary equivalent of placing Romeo without Juliet, Mickey without Minnie, Abelard without Heloise (although she would have been much better off without him, in my opinion). I don’t quite know how it happened, but let’s just say that I was overcome with the excitement of learning how to make guacamole that I simply forgot about the unbroken pact between guac and salsa.

I’m going to rectify that now, because trying to have a Mexican meal without salsa just isn’t right. I won’t allow it.

Salsa
3 tomatoes
Quarter of an onion
One deseeded chilli
Small handful of fresh coriander
Salt
Squeeze of lime juice

Finely chop the tomatoes, onion, chilli and coriander. Combine in a bowl and add salt and lime juice to taste. Nothing simpler!

holy guacamole

Mexican cuisine is like the lover who sporadically makes appearances in your life and works his way back into your heart by charming you with something new and exciting each time. After a particularly long run of soups and salads and sandwiches, Mexican shows up and you vaguely consider settling down – because it has flavour, texture, heat and sweetness and crunch and comfort; everything you could possibly want in a cuisine.

It amuses me to tell you that for the longest time I didn’t like avocados. I used to scrape the guacamole off my nachos and give it to my bestie. In fact, I didn’t like avocados until I came to this country and tried guacamole at Wahaca.

Slowly, I’ve fallen in love with the creamy texture and subtle, fresh taste. Guacamole is something indescribably complex; muted creaminess balanced with the spike of raw onion, chunks of soft flesh, a sharp note of lime juice and of course the flavour kick of coriander. These days I’m drawn irrepressibly to the vivid, iridescent green whenever I’m in a Mexican restaurant.

Guacamole
3 x large ripe avocados*
Half a red onion, very finely chopped
1 lime
Small handful of coriander, finely chopped
Salt

Mince the coriander and half the onion, chopping as finely as humanly possible. If you’re lucky enough to have a mortar and pestle, use that. Otherwise, a little muscle on the chopping board will do. Place into a bowl, add a pinch of salt.
Scoop the flesh from the avocados, add to the bowl and mash with a fork. Add half the lime juice as you go.
When you’ve got a rough guacamole, add the rest of the lime and onion and mix well. Season with black pepper and more salt if necessary.

If you like, you could add additional coriander leaves, chilli or a deseeded tomato.

*It’s easy to buy avocados from Sainsbury’s or Tesco, where they’re the cheapest, but often the ‘ready to eat’ avocados are about as hard as hockey pucks or else they’re descending into that really icky soft rotten place. Press gently on the small tip and if it gives just slightly you’re in luck. Otherwise buy firm avocados a few days ahead and keep them in the fridge.