Vegetarian Black Beans Worth Crowing About

The Black Beans with the Secret Ingredient

Felicia Sanchez's Centre Street Cafe black beans have a smoky flavor and a mysterious ingredient.

For many years, I’ve been enjoying the black beans at one of my favorite restaurants, Centre Street Café.  They have a wonderful smoky flavor, but there was a certain something—a little kick—that I just couldn’t place. Recently, I learned the secret behind these delicious black beans.

A little while back, video producer Kate Raisz of 42°N Films and I asked Centre Street Café chef/owner Felicia Sanchez if we could shoot a video of her making a dish featuring fresh and local foods for a project we were working on.  The project’s on hold, but we got a sweet little video out of it that just screams “fresh and local.”  We’ll post the video of Felicia making her delectable Mexicali Composed Salad soon.

Chili Garlic Sauce

Tuong Ot Toi Vietnam Chili Garlic Sauce

As if the video was not enough, Felicia also generously shared her black bean recipe, which is one of the components of her Mexicali Composed Salad.  I finally learned her secret: Tuong Ot Toi Vietnam Chili Garlic Sauce, a blend of ground chilies and garlic. When I tracked down the Tuong Ot Toi sauce at my local grocery store, I saw it was bright red with a familiar rooster logo.  I discovered that Huy Fong Foods, the California company that makes Tuong Ot Toi sauce, also makes Tuong Ot Sriracha, which is also a bright red Asian hot sauce with the same rooster logo.


Tuong Ot Sriracha

Tuong Ot Sriracha is a paste of chili peppers, distilled vinegar, garlic, sugar and salt and is based on a sauce that originated in the city of Srirachai in Thailand. The company’s founder, David Tran, is an ethnic Chinese Vietnamese farmer who was born in the Year of the Rooster, hence the rooster logo.

Once you’ve bought some Liquid Smoke and your Tuong Ot Toi sauce, the recipe is quite simple.  You don’t even have to soak the beans before cooking them. According to Felicia, the real secret to making good beans is to not let the pot come to a boil, because boiling toughens beans.  But I think it’s the rooster.

Centre Street Café Black Beans

From Felicia Sanchez, Chef/Owner of Centre Street Café in Jamaica Plain, Mass.


1 lb. black beans (you don’t need to soak them)
1/2 onion, sliced thinly
1 TB Kosher salt
1 TB cumin
1 TB paprika
1 TB cider vinegar
1 TB canola oil
2 TB liquid smoke
2 ½ TB minced garlic
1 ½ TB Tuong Ot Toi Vietnam Chili Garlic Sauce

Rinse and sort through the black beans to pick out any stones or dirt.

Put the beans into a large pot with all the other ingredients.  Cover with at least 2 inches of water.

Bring the beans almost to a boil, then reduce the heat to a simmer. (Don’t boil the beans, because it will toughen them.)

Simmer the beans until soft (approximately 1 ½ hrs).

Keep beans covered with a little water; add water if necessary.

Makes approximately 6 ½ cups.


“Lazy” Shoppers Guide to Sustainable Shrimp

ShrimpMy post, “Is There Such a Thing as Guilt-Free Shrimp?”, in which I confessed to feeling guilty about eating shrimp, prompted a lot of comments on the blog and Facebook.

Agrigirl Tammy, who’s based in Arizona and has a wonderful food blog, commented, “I have that farm raised = bad attitude and I love that you’re offering alternative opinions. As crazy as it sounds, we have a shrimp grower here in the desert.” And Jacquie from Dorchester wondered about buying shrimp from the local Asian markets in her neighborhood.

Hazel, who described herself as my “lazy cousin in Chicago,” but was energetic enough to write, said she hasn’t been buying much shrimp because they taste like iodine and asked for advice on where to buy it.  And Tibbs from Jamaica Plain said, “I’ve been ‘worrying’ and not doing anything, too,” and asked what questions I ask at the seafood counter and where I draw the line.

Figuring out how (and where) to buy good-tasting, healthy, sustainable shrimp is frustrating and time-consuming. While there’s tons of information about sustainable seafood out there–including downloadable wallet guides and free  smart phone apps–not everyone agrees on what’s sustainable and the information changes all the time! So while I encourage you to read up on this stuff, if you don’t have time to do it yourself, here’s my “lazy” shoppers guide to sustainable shrimp.

What to Ask/Find Out

The best way to buy shrimp is to ask questions and/or read the label to find  about what you’re getting.  Just the fact that you’re asking will let the store know that you care about getting sustainable seafood.   If you can’t get any information or don’t like the answer, consider buying something else (or finding another store). Here are a few questions to ask:

  1. What’s it called? (There may be more than one name for the same shrimp.)
  2. Where’s it from?
  3. Is it wild or farmed?
  4. How was it caught or farmed?

What to Buy

  1. Buy local shrimp whenever possible. There’s a lot more domestic shrimp than I realized. If you’re lucky enough to be able to get fresh local fish, support your local fishing community.
  2. Domestic, wild, trap-caught shrimp are considered a best choice. Most wild shrimp are caught using huge nets (trawls) that scoop up sea turtles, fish, and other marine life as well as the shrimp. They throw this “bycatch” overboard, but it’s generally dead by the time they dump it. While some shrimpers do use fishing gear that keep turtles and other species from getting caught or allow them to escape, it’s best to try to buy shrimp that are caught with traps, because they pick up less bycatch.
  3. Domestic farmed shrimp are usually a better option than imported farmed shrimp. Plus, most people say they prefer the taste of domestic shrimp. As the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch points out, however, it takes an average of two pounds of wild fish to grow one pound of farmed shrimp, so shrimp farming often uses more fish than it produces. Domestic shrimp farms (and some international ones) are improving their practices by using natural enclosed ecosystems but most haven’t solved the feed problem, so domestic wild shrimp are still usually a better choice than domestic farmed shrimp.
  4. Avoid farmed shrimp from Asia and South America. 90 percent of the shrimp in the US is imported from these regions. These environmentally-destructive farms are disease-prone, so they pump the shrimp with antibiotics and pesticides. According to Food and Water Watch, less than 2 percent of US seafood imports are inspected for contamination. While many seafood products have country of origin labels, wholesale markets and processed seafood products aren’t required to provide them. So if you don’t see a label or can’t ask your fishmonger where the shrimp are from, you should probably assume they’re selling imported farmed shrimp. While the fish stores in my friend Jacquie’s neighborhood are probably selling plenty of local fish, it’s unlikely that any of their shrimp are domestic. Personally, I’m going to try to draw the line at buying imported shrimp.
  5. Look for third-party certified products. A growing numbers of groups certify shrimp and other seafood products as sustainable. Unfortunately, there aren’t any federal or universally-agreed upon standards for what this means. Some certifiers have been criticized for “greenwashing” products that aren’t truly environmentally or socially sustainable.  Even if some of these certifiers are not as discerning as I’d like them to be, I still think you look for  any “eco-label” or sustainably certified shrimp at the stores where you usually shop and read their labels (or research them online at home).  At the very least, you’ll be able to get some information about what you’re buying.

Where to Buy It

  1. Your local seafood supplier or community supported fishery. If you’re lucky enough to have a local source for shrimp, like a fishmonger or a community-supported fishery, you’ll be able to get your questions answered and feel great about supporting the local economy. Your local food coop or natural food store may also be able to provide sustainable sources. Go for it if you can!
  2. Your Supermarket. Greenpeace USA profiles 20 seafood retailers in its excellent annual sustainable seafood report, Carting Away the Oceans. While none of the 20 retailers achieved a green “Good” ranking from the activist organization, the report noted that unsustainable seafoods like orange roughy and Chilean sea bass are sold in fewer places now and stores are getting more serious about supporting sustainability. In my experience, most of the large supermarkets sometimes or always carry wild shrimp, but it can be hard to find amid the cheap, imported, farmed-raised shrimp.
  3. Surprisingly, Target’s grocery division, SuperTarget, ranked first on Greenpeace’s list because it has eliminated farmed salmon from all of its stores. Wegmen’s, a snazzy family-owned chain with stores in a handful of states on the East Coast, ranked #2 and earned high praise; they sell farmed Belizean shrimp that sounds pretty sustainable.  I can’t wait until they open their first Boston store! Whole Foods Market, or “Whole Paycheck,” as we call them in our household, came in #3; in my experience, Whole Foods reliably offers many good choices–if you can afford them.

    Most of the other chains, including #5 Safeway (Carr’s, Dominick’s, Genuardi’s, Pavilions, Randall’s, Safeway, Tom Thumb, VONS), #6 Ahold (Stop & Shop, Giant, Martin’s Food Market, Ukrop’s), and Walmart (#9), are in the process of asking suppliers to provide sustainable products, but they’re still selling all or mostly all imported shrimp.

    I was happy to learn that after an intense Greenpeace campaign last year, Trader Joe’s (#10) announced that it will stop selling all unsustainable seafood products by December 31, 2012 and will be adding more information on its labels. When I go to Trader Joe’s, I almost always find wild seafood, but I’m not sure if I’ve ever see any sustainable shrimp there.

    Costco came in at #14 and rightly so. I don’t recall ever seeing wild shrimp there, and they’re not great as far as labeling. They are, however, selling sustainable seafood online (see below). Personally, I’ve never tried asking a staffer about their seafood; I think I’d be more inclined to email the corporate headquarters.

  4. Check Out Third-Party Certifiers. The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) is an international non-profit organization that certifies fisheries and is well regarded by Seafood Watch, although slammed by others.  Look for their seal on the packages, or check out their website for a list of shops and restaurants that carry the products.
  5. Order it online. If you can’t find a reliable source of sustainable shrimp locally and you really want shrimp, you may need to order it online.  I hesitate to even suggest this, because it tends to be expensive, and anyway, how sustainable can it be to have food products shipped to you? If I couldn’t find another source, I could see ordering in bulk once in a while as a treat.A growing number of companies are selling domestic wild-caught or farm-raised shrimp online. For example, Contessa® Just Harvested® Sustainably Raised Shrimp are raised in a natural mangrove ecosystem in Southeast Asia, eat available food–primarily phytoplankton and zooplankton—instead of fish feed, and are not given any antibiotics, pesticides, or other chemicals. This brand is certified by the Marine Stewardship Council and is the only imported farm-raised shrimp that Seafood Watch lists as a good alternative. The product is only available to consumers through the Costco website.Other places to order include I Love Blue Sea, which sells wild shrimp sustainably caught with turtle-free nets in the US and Mexico, and Marvesta Shrimp, which are farm-raised on Maryland’s Eastern Shore with no antiobiotics or preservatives and are shipped fresh.

Happy shopping, and please share your experiences finding sustainable shrimp!