Smart Mouth |

February 13, 2010 by Post Team 

Smart-MouthSmart Mouth | love the sound of black bean soup. I imagine the rich color of those small, rounded, black rocks glistening in an earthy, dark broth, sometimes studded with bits of jade, gold, and ruby and topped with a bit of fresh cheese or a swirl of sour cream. Done well it’s a beautiful, satisfying, and simple soup. Mostly, though, when I’ve actually orderedblack bean soup in a restaurant, I’m presented with something that looks like an asphalt mud puddle after a storm. The beans are overcooked or (more consistently) undercooked, and the heaping mound of sour cream threatens to overtake any semblance of color or spice. I’ve never attempted to makeblack bean soup before, but I’ve been spending quite a bit of time lately on Elise’s Simply Recipes and came across just the recipe. Elise’s mother grew up in Arizona, just around the corner, so she has a wealth of good Southwestern recipes.

Lately I have been reading about the Japanese cooking philosophy, washoku, in a wonderful book of the same name by Elizabeth Andoh. Included in the principles of the washoku philosophy are considerations of: the five colors (go shiki), five tastes (go mi), five senses (go kan), and five ways… of preparing food (go h?). These principles are used to prepare meals daily, from elaborate multi-course kaiseki to the simplest of breakfasts. While they can easily be identified in Japanese cooking, and the Japanese certainly do a beautiful job of interpreting their philosophy, guidelines like these are an excellent way of exploring any meal or cuisine. While the list may seem daunting, it’s quite simple, and quiet effective in guiding us to create healthful, satisfying meals.

In Japanese cuisine, the five colors present in every meal are red, yellow, green, black, and white. Using a variety of colors derived from whole foods in each meal stimulates our sight, but also automatically helps us to vary nutrients and taste. You don’t need to think about it much to realize the benefits of eating a variety of colors. Consider the chlorophyll and B vitamins found in leafy greens, the antioxidants in red and purple berries, the carotenoid-rich carrot, the abundance of vitamin K in dark kelp, C-rich lemons, and potassium-pumped bananas. In this soup, orange sweet potato and red chipotle, white cheddar, green cilantro, black beans and purple tortilla chips, and yellow pepper create a semblance of colors to entice our eyes and nourish our bellies.

Adding different flavors into a dish or meal helps to satisfy all taste buds without overwhelming them. For the Japanese, the five tastes are salty, sour, sweet, bitter, and spicy. While I certainly don’t use all of these tastes all the time, it’s hard to forget the pleasure of tasting something sweet accompanied by something salty or spicy. In this dish the sweet potato and onion adds a sweetness that helps to heighten the smokiness and spiciness of the chile, the lime and tomato add a sourness and acidity that counters the creamy richness of the soup, the cumin adds a bit of bite, and the salty tortilla chips help to enhance the taste overall on the way to your mouth.

The five ways include cooking techniques like simmering, broiling, steaming, sauteing, boiling, etc. In many Japanese dishes, ingredients for a single dish will be cooked separately and then assembled together at the final stage. This gives complexity and variety to foods without requiring a lot of rich fats and heavy cooking techniques. While it’s not so easy to have 4 different pots boiling to create a single dish, here the caramelized vegetables add some richness to the boiled beans, sauteing the aromatics helps to bring out their flavor, and pureeing the soup as a last step gives the soup a body without requiring any heady stock or fat.

Finally we consider the five senses of taste, sight, sound, smell, and touch. In addition to taste and color, the crunch of the chips, the aroma of chile and cumin, and the creaminess of the soup engage all five senses.

While I changed some of the proportions and ingredients from Elise’s original recipe to produce a delightfully orange color, I guess this suits another Japanese principle I enjoy… suiting the seasonality and locality of your physical place. To many Americans this means “eating seasonally and locally,” but tothe Japanese it means much more. It means considering your mood, atmosphere, the weather outside your window, a particular dish in your pantry, or a thought that comes across you.

Matt and I just returned from a road trip to the red dirt of Utah’s Canyonlands and Arches National Parks. The winter snow is actually sticking to this arid desert more so than it has in the past 30 years. Thousands of years of water wandering through the limestone and sandstone (or “slick rock” as it is called locally) has created a playground of different rock formations: some as archways, long roads, steps, canyons, and giant, muddy-looking statues. Everywhere you look rocks and trees twist into elaborate shapes, succulents pierce the snow looking for moisture, and the dirt is ruddy and cracked. So lets just say the sandy, ruddy dirt of Utah turned myblack bean soup a vibrant orange.

Black bean soup
2 cups cooked black beans, see below for options

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 onion, 1/4 inch dice
1 celery rib, 1/4 inch dice
1 sweet potato, peeled and chopped into 1/2 inch dice

4 cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon cumin, toasted, and ground
2 tablespoons medium heat red chile powder, like this one
1/2 teaspoon chipotle powder

12 oz can whole peeled tomatoes, squished between fingers
4 cups cooking liquid + beans
1/2 orange or yellow (or orange) bell pepper, chopped
1/2 teaspoon salt, or to taste
Juice of 1 lime

Cilantro, minced for garnish
Jack cheese, grated, for garnish

Heat the oil. Add the onion, celery, and sweet potato, and saute, until lightly browned, about 10-15 minutes.

Add the garlic, cumin, chile powder, chipotle powder, and saute a few minutes more.

Add the beans, tomatoes, cooking liquid, bell pepper, and salt. Simmer for 20 to 30 minutes, uncovered. Puree 1/2 of the soup. Return to the pot. Add the lime and adjust seasoning. Serve with garnishes, tortillas, or chips.

Cooking dried beans
1 cup dried black beans
3 thin slices of salt pork
2 bay leaves
1 garlic clove, squashed
1/2 onion, peeled
Rinse and pick over the beans in a colander. Soak the beans overnight in enough water to cover them plus two inches. Drain. Place all ingredients in a 2 quart stock pot. Add eight cups of water. Turn on to boil. Turn down to simmer, covered, for 2 hours.The beans are completely done when they are smooth, tender, and not starchy. Remove from heat and drain, reserving 4 cups of cooking liquid.

Using canned beans
2 cans black beans, drained and rinsed

3 pieces salt pork
2 bay leaves
1/4 onion
1 garlic clove, squashed
4 cups water

Place pork, bay leaves, onion, garlic, and water in a large pot. Turn on to boil, then turn down to simmer and cover. Cook for 20 minutes or so. Strain. Continue with recipe above.

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