While island-hopping in the Caribbean one discovers that the cookery is as varied as the countries and cultures that the area represents. There are specialties from many lands. Some of the best fare, however, is prepared with native American dried black beans, which Caribbean cooks use to make inviting hearty dishes, often in combination with rice.

Black beans have been nourishing Islanders for centuries. Thousands of years ago American Indians began cultivating a diverse number of beans in fascinating varieties and colors from a wild New World plant. The legume became known as the common bean and is also called the kidney and haricot bean.

Bean cookery was highly developed in the Islands long ago as the beans supplied essential protein lacking in their other basic foods. Beans are concentrated sources of energy with a high degree of protein content and they also include a number of minerals.

Black or turtle beans, also called purple hull beans, of which there are many varieties, are small, flat, and oval. The off-black or charcoal skin covers a whitish inside. Black beans are the heartiest and meatiest of all and have a distinctive flavor.

Some English-speaking Islanders use the term "peas" for both peas and beans -- but most often, beans are called by the Spanish name frijoles .

Beans, either black or red, and rice, cooked together or separately, are the mainstay of the Caribbean diet.They are served at least once a day and often twice. Main dishes are almost always served with beans and rice. The beans are not only nutritious, but inexpensive and easy to transport and store.

Dried black beans, available in most American grocery stores, should be soaked in water before they are cooked to restore the liquid lost during drying. Some cooks soak the beans overnight, and then cook them very slowly for 2 to 2 1/2 hours. Others use the so-called "quick-method" by which the beans are covered with cold water, brought to a boil, allowed to cook for 2 minutes, then removed from the stove and left to stand in the same water for an hour. In this manner the beans can be cooked more quickly, about 1 1/2 hours. The length of cooking time depends on the type of bean.

Black beans usually are well seasoned in the Caribbean with an assortment of flavorings such as salt pork, bacon, ham, olive oil, onions, garlic, green peppers, tomatoes, bay leaves, oregano, cumin, thyme, dried or fresh coriander, vinegar, salt, and pepper. Hot peppers or chilis are used in some dishes. Sofrito , a lightly fried mixture or sauce of several of the above ingredients, is a common and good addition to black beans. Rum and black beans have considerable affinity. Some cooks flavor the beans with annatto (or achiote ) oil made from the orange-red seeds of a tropical plant. It is available in Latin American stores.

A Caribbean black bean specialty is a thick and dark substantial soup that is made in considerable variety, but is always hot in taste as well as in temperature. Traditionally, the soup is a noontime meal, but also is a fine dish for supper. The beans may be whole or pureed and are often served over or with cooked rice and garnished with chopped onions. Cooks can also use the beans to make good stews or casseroles by combining them with ham, pork, beef cubes, or sliced sausages.

Given below are three good basic Caribbean black bean dishes.

SOPA DE FRIJOLES NEGROS

(Black Bean Soup)

(8 to 10 servings) 1 pound (2 cups) dried black beans 8 cups cold water 1/4 cup diced salt pork 1/4 cup olive or salad oil 1 large onion, peeled and diced 2 cloves garlic, crushed 1 medium-size green pepper, cleaned and chopped 1 cup diced smoked ham (optional) 3 medium-size fresh or canned whole tomatoes, chopped 1 bay leaf 1 teaspoon dried oregano or thyme Salt, pepper to taste 2 tablespoons pepper or wine vinegar About 1 cup chopped onions

Pick over and wash beans. Put beans and water in a large kettle. Bring to a boil; boil 2 minutes. Remove from heat and let stand, covered, 1 hour. Meanwhile, fry salt pork in a small skillet to render all fat. Add oil and heat. Add onion, garlic, and green pepper; saute until onions are tender. Add ham, if used, tomatoes, bay leaf, oregano or thyme, salt, and pepper. Cook slowly, uncovered, stirring occasionally, 15 minutes. After beans have rested 1 hour, add sauteed mixture; mix well. Return to heat. Bring to a boil. Lower heat and simmer, covered, about 1 1/2 hours, until beans are tender. Remove from heat, mix in vinegar. Remove and discard bay leaf. Serve with beans whole or shirl soup in a blender or puree. Serve garnished with chopped onions, and with cooked white rice, if desired.

FRIJOLES NEGROS

(Black Beans)

(6 to 8 servings) 1 pound (2 cups) dried black beans 4 cups cold water 2 large cloves garlic, crushed 1/4 cup diced salt pork 2 tablespoons olive or salad oil 1 large onion, peeled and chopped 1 large green pepper, cleaned and diced 1 bay leaf 1 teaspoon dried oregano 3 tablespoons chopped fresh coriander or parsley Salt, Pepper to taste 2 tablespoons wine vinegar

Pick over and wash beans. Put beans and water in a large kettle. Bring to a boil; boil 2 minutes. Remove from heat and let stand, covered, 1 hour. Add 1 clove garlic and bring to a boil. Lower heat and simmer, covered, 1 hour. Meanwhile, fry salt pork in a small skillet to render all fat. Add oil and heat. Add remaining clove garlic, onion, and green pepper; saute until onions are tender. After beans have cooked 1 hour, add sauteed vegetables, bay leaf, and oregano to them. Mix well. Continue cooking, covered, another 30 minutes, until beans are tender. Add coriander or parsley, salt, pepper, and vinegar. Remove from heat. Remove and discard bay leaf, serve with cooked white rice, if desired.

MOROSY CRISTANOS

(Moors and Christians)

(6 servings) 1 large onion, peeled and chopped 2 to 3 cloves garlic, crushed 1 large green pepper, cleaned and minced 1/3 cup olive or salad oil 2 large tomatoes, peeled and chopped 1/2 cup diced smoked ham (optional) 1 teaspoon dried oregano or thyme 3 tablespoons chopped fresh coriander or parsley Salt, pepper to taste 2 cups cooked white, long grain rice 2 cups cooked black beans 2 tablespoons wine vinegar

Saute onion, garlic, and green pepper in heated oil in a large saucepan until onions are tender. Add tomatoes, ham, oregano or thyme, coriander or parsley, salt, and pepper; cook slowly, uncovered, 5 minutes. Add rice and black beans; mix well. Leave over moderate heat about 6 minutes, long enough to blend flavors. Remove from heat and mix in vinegar.