I have to agree with chef and cookbook author Maricel Presilla, who, in her James Beard Award-winning “Gran Cocina Latina,” unequivocally calls Cuban beans and rice “one of the most felicitous rice and bean combinations I have ever tasted.”
Its Spanish name is Moros y Cristianos (Moors and Christians), which not only gets at the cultural collisions that led to them ending up on the same plate, but also the juxtaposition of the white rice and black beans. (Red or kidney beans are also used in Cuba.)
Once the two star ingredients are combined, the juxtaposition doesn’t last very long. The inky black liquid from cooking dried black beans (it’s easy, and you don’t even have to soak them) colors the rice, and what you get is a seductive, dark hue in the finished dish. The commingling of flavors, ingredients and color is “the history of Cuba in a pot,” Presilla tells me, with its merging of influences from Spain, Africa and Latin America. “It is emblematic.”
It’s also downright delicious. The earthy flavor of the beans is the perfect foil to the brighter flavors imparted by the vinegar and oregano. Sauteed bacon doesn’t hurt either, with its smoky, salty presence infusing everything in the pot.
Rice and beans is nothing fancy, which is one of the things I love about it, but Presilla says it’s often served as feast food, especially around Christmas. The dish is typically enjoyed as a side, she says, along with something like juicy pork and yucca with mojo sauce, but I’ve been more than happy to eat a bowl for a satisfying main course.
Presilla, who hails from Cuba, recalls the family cook teaching her how to make Moros y Cristianos. “It’s the first dish I ever made as a child,” she says. It’s time those of us who haven’t had the pleasure of eating it all our lives started making up for lost time.
RECIPE NOTES: If you don’t want to cook dried beans, Presilla suggests using one 15-ounce can of beans, reserving its liquid to use when you cook the rice. You will have to add water to the liquid from the can to get the necessary 4 cups of liquid for cooking the rice (the color of the finished dish won’t be as dark). If you don’t have sherry vinegar, you can substitute distilled white vinegar, although the flavor won’t be quite the same. Equal amounts of distilled vinegar and dry sherry will work, too.
The cilantro and lime are not traditionally Cuban, so they’re an optional garnish.
Make Ahead: The beans can be cooked up to 2 days in advance. Drain, reserving the cooking liquid, and refrigerate beans and liquid separately.
- FOR THE BEANS
- 8 ounces (1 1/4 cups) dried black beans, rinsed and picked over to remove debris
- 10 cups water
- 1 medium onion, halved
- 1 medium green bell pepper (seeds and ribs discarded), halved
- 1 cubanelle pepper (whole)
- FOR THE DISH
- About 13 ounces (2 cups) long-grain rice
- 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 4 ounces slab or thick-cut bacon, diced
- 1 medium yellow onion, finely chopped
- 1 medium green bell pepper (seeds and ribs discarded), finely chopped
- 1 teaspoon ground cumin, or more as needed
- 1 teaspoon dried oregano, or more as needed
- 1 bay leaf
- 2 tablespoons sherry vinegar (may substitute white distilled vinegar), or more as needed
- 2 teaspoons salt, or more as needed
- Cilantro leaves, for garnish (optional)
- Lime wedges, for serving (optional)
Place the beans in a 4- to 5-quart heavy pot along with the water, onion, green bell pepper and cubanelle pepper. Bring to a boil over high heat, then reduce the heat to medium and cook, uncovered, for 1 hour 40 minutes to 2 hours, maintaining gentle bubbling, until the beans are tender yet still retain their shape. (Test the beans for doneness; the range in time depends somewhat on how fresh the beans are.) Drain, reserving 4 cups of the cooking liquid. Discard the flavoring vegetables; the yield of beans is 2 cups.
Rinse the rice in a fine-mesh strainer until the water runs clear. Drain well.
Heat the oil in the same pot over medium heat. Add the diced bacon and cook for about 3 minutes, until golden. Add the onion, green bell pepper, cumin, oregano and bay leaf; cook for about 5 minutes, until the onion has softened.
Add the rice and stir to coat thoroughly. Add the beans and their reserved cooking liquid, the sherry vinegar and salt. Stir well, then taste for seasoning; add a dash more vinegar, cumin, oregano and/or salt, as needed. The liquid should be flavorful. Cook, uncovered, for 8 to 12 minutes, until most of the liquid has been absorbed and small holes have formed on the surface of the rice. Fluff the rice with a fork, reduce the heat to the lowest setting, cover tightly and cook for 20 minutes.
Remove from the heat, uncover and let stand for at least 10 minutes before serving. Discard the bay leaf.
Top each portion with cilantro leaves and serve with lime wedges, if desired.
Adapted from “Gran Cocina Latina” by Maricel Presilla (W.W. Norton & Company, 2012).
Tested by Becky Krystal; email questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Calories: 360; Total Fat: 9 g; Saturated Fat: 3 g; Cholesterol: 10 mg; Sodium: 690 mg; Carbohydrates: 57 g; Dietary Fiber: 8 g; Sugars: 5 g; Protein: 11 g.