Black beans are the soul of Cuban cooking, says Emily Gonzalez, 22, of Chicago.
Filling, affordable and delicioso, habichuelas negras are served pretty much every week in her Cuban-Mexican family, no matter the time of day or the dish they accompany. ”We eat them in the morning with eggs, mix them with chicken in quesadillas, put them in our empanadas, serve them with ropa vieja for special occasions like birthdays and Thanksgiving. And so many other dishes,” says Emily, a college student studying healthcare marketing.
“They bring a comforting warmth to every meal. Our cherished Cuban black beans are more than just food. They represent a deep connection to our cultural roots. In a typical Cuban household, traditional black beans weave their way into most gatherings,” she explains.
A definining ingredient in Cuban cuisine, black beans, which are native to Latin America, are also called for in the recipes of many other parts of the Latino world, especially Costa Rica, Guatemala, Mexico, Puerto Rico, and Venezuela, Guatemala.
Her family’s love for this legume started at least one generation back with her abuelo, says Emily. ”Born in Havana, my grandfather, Faustino Heriberto Pérez, comes from an Afro-Cuban heritage. A storyteller with a wide variety of experiences, he’d talk to us a lot about the significance of black beans in his childhood. His family struggled to feed themselves within the limited resources of a tight budget. In Cuba, beans are the most affordable source of protein, so they became a staple of their daily meals.”
Almost a century later, with everyone now living in the Chicago area and, thankfully, no longer experiencing financial hardship or food insecurity, black beans are still a staple in Emily’s family table. Emily and her sisters gather for special meals, to cook a large pot of stewed black beans for their family recipe for congri, a belly-filling, garlicky mixture of black beans cooked with arroz blanco.
”I recall moments with my sister, when we were at my grandfather’s home, sifting through fresh beans, making sure each one was perfect,” says Emily. ”Sure, canned black beans are available, but the beauty of cooking traditional Cuban dishes with beans lies in starting with fresh ones, to make the most of their rich flavor.”
A word on the ingredients: “My family measures based on our hearts, so play with the amounts to your taste,” says Emily. ”You can top your beans with red-pimento-stuffed Spanish olives once everything has been combined to your liking. My grandfather loved olives and once had the brilliant idea to add them to our black beans. We have never looked back and continue to include them in this recipe.”
Check out the family-famous black beans, below, that Emily and her family cook year-round in honor off their Cuban heritage and switch out for the expected mashed potatoes every Thanksgiving. To find more recipes from Emily’s family-famous Cuban-style T Day feast here.