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.


How to Make a Kickin’ Vegan Hoppin’ John

Black-Eyed Peas

These black-eyed peas have been soaked overnight.

When the clock stroke midnight on New Year’s Eve, did you dive a spoon into a pot of Hoppin’ John so you’d have good luck in 2011? Don’t worry, I didn’t  either. But I made up for it today by cooking up a pot of what I’ve dubbed  Kickin’ Vegan Hoppin’ John, so hopefully I’ll be swimming in green this year.

Hoppin’ John is an African-American dish that is eaten on New Year’s for good luck.  The main ingredient is usually black-eyed peas (said to be brought to America by African slaves working on the rice plantations), served with rice.  To cinch the deal, people usually eat some kind of greens—the color of money–with their Hoppin’ John.

There seem to be as many versions of Hoppin’ John as there are stories about how it got it that odd name or why it brings you good luck.  My theory is that it’s basically a pretty healthy dish, and, as they say, “Health is Wealth.”

Black-eyed peas take less time to cook than most other beans, but they don’t have much flavor. Hoppin’ John is usually made with bacon or a ham hock, but vegetarians have to find other ways to give it a kick.  Since one of my New Year’s resolutions is to find new ways to encourage myself and others to eat healthy and local foods as much as possible, I was eager to create a cheap, healthy recipe that would please both vegetarians and meat-eaters. I hope this dish will help you enjoy a happy, healthy 2011.

Kickin’ Vegan Hoppin’ John


Olive oil spray
1 large yellow onion, diced
1 red bell pepper, cored and julienned
1 celery stalk, thinly sliced
1 carrot, thinly sliced
1 hot green chili, cored and most or all of the seeds removed, depending on how hot you like your food
2 cloves garlic, peeled and thinly sliced
1 cup dried black-eyed peas, soaked overnight, drained, and cooked until barely soft (you can substitute 2 packages frozen, thawed and rinsed or 2 15 oz. cans, rinsed)
1 14.5 can diced tomatoes
1 bay leaf
1 teaspoon dried thyme
½ teaspoon smoked paprika (regular paprika will work, but the smoked paprika adds a nice kick)
½ teaspoon salt (adjust to taste)
½ teaspoon pepper (adjust to taste)
1 teaspoon Liquid Smoke (adjust to taste)
1 12 fl. Oz. bottle dark beer
Tabasco sauce (to taste)

Coat a large sauté pan with a few sprays of olive oil and heat pan to medium.  Sauté the onion for a few minutes until it begins to soften.  Add the red pepper, celery, carrots, and hot pepper and stir occasionally for three minutes.  Add the garlic and cook 1 minute.  Add the diced tomatoes with their juice.

Drain the black-eyed peas and add to the pot. Stir in the bay leaf, thyme, smoked paprika, salt and pepper, and Liquid Smoke. Pour in the beer. Stir well and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer, covered, until the liquid is reduced but there is still some sauce. Remove the bay leaf. Add Tabasco sauce and adjust seasonings to give it the kick you will need to get through 2011 in health and wealth!

Hoppin' John

Kickin' Vegan Hoppin' John over brown rice, served with a side of collard greens.

Serve over a bed of cooked brown rice with a side of collard greens for extra good luck.

Heirloom Beans: More Than A Hill of Beans

A hill of Rancho Gordo beans.

Until recently, if you’d asked me if I’d be willing to pay $7 or $8 a pound for a bag of dried beans, I’d have said, “Are you kidding? Why pay that much for something you can pick up at the supermarket for less than a dollar? Beans are beans.”

But—as I’ve learned–beans are not just beans.  If you go to the grocery store, you can usually find about a half-dozen kinds of beans for sale.  If you go to a natural food store, maybe you’ll find a dozen.  But there’s a planet full – literally – of different kinds of beans.  According to Wikipedia, over 4000 varieties of beans have been cultivated in the US alone.

Heirloom beans are pure, distinct varieties that have been cultivated for generations and can be regrown from seeds every year.  Like heirloom tomatoes, each heirloom bean has a distinct flavor profile and is suitable for specific recipes.

This fall, I attended a panel on Heirloom Beans at the Chefs Collaborative Summit, where my bean knowledge grew faster than Jack’s beanstalk. (Chef’s Collaborative also has a nice little publication called Cooking with Heirloom Beans that you can download for free from their website.)

Panelist Mike Holleman, director of culinary development at Indian Harvest in Bemidji, Minnesota, passed around a basket of 20-year-old beans for us to look at.  He told us that, technically, the beans were still edible, but since the older a bean is, the longer it takes to cook, you wouldn’t want to use them.

Although maybe some of the chefs in the audience could tell, to be honest, I’d never have known that these beans were practically as old as some of the emails in my Inbox. My advice: Know Your Farmer.  Since you can’t tell how old your beans are just by looking at them, you need to find a reliable supplier whom you can ask.

Since beans are seldom served without lots of other ingredients, I don’t know what most of them taste like. Like coffee and vodka, the best way to learn about beans is to taste them straight up.

I went on an heirloom bean hunt.  While they haven’t made it to most supermarkets, you can find some varieties at natural foods stores and gourmet stores. In addition, you can order them online from companies like Rancho Gordo New World Specialty Food in Napa, California.  (If you need instructions, Rancho Gordo has a very funny little video on how to cook beans on their website.)

Christmas Lima Beans that have been soaked overnight.

For my first experiment, I decided to buy a bag of Rancho Gordo’s Christmas Lima Beans at South End Formaggio in Boston. I wanted to try them first, because I like Lima beans and these ones supposedly taste like chestnuts.

Like other kinds of Lima beans, Christmas Lima Beans are flat and oval-shaped.  The beans are ivory-colored, with mottled reddish markings.  Although they did turn chestnut-brown when cooked, their rich, earthy flavor reminded me more of mushrooms than chestnuts.  With the addition of sautéed onions, carrot, fennel, mizuna, and a few herbs, the beans made a delicious stew that even my dinner guests who were not bean-lovers  enjoyed.

Although $6.99 still sounds like a lot for a bag of beans, when you think about it, it’s a lot cheaper than most other forms of protein.  I fed four people and had leftovers for several more meals.  I’d say that amounts to a lot more than a hill of beans.

So, one bean-tasting down, 3,999 varieties to go.

A “Poached” Pair of Poached Pear Recipes

A pair of pears

This week, I had the opportunity to “poach” a pair of poached pear recipes from two distinguished sources, chef Didi Emmons and Cook’s Illustrated.

Michelle and I made the first poached pear recipe at a cooking class at Haley House, sponsored by the Boston Vegetarian Society and taught by Didi Emmons.  Emmons is the author of two cookbooks, including Vegetarian Planet.  For $39 each, Michelle and I watched a cooking demo and then helped cook a four-course dinner, which our class then sat down to eat.

Poached Pears

Poached Pears in Red Wine with Lemon Grass wait to be chilled

Didi Emmons’ poached pear recipe takes a fairly standard approach.  The pears are halved and cored, and then cooked in a red wine syrup (red wine and sugar) until tender.  Her recipe used lemon grass, which added a lovely tartness to balance the heavy richness of the wine syrup.  She served the pears with soy vanilla ice cream because it was a vegan meal.  The cranberry-red poached pears looked beautiful next to the pale ice cream.

A few days after our cooking class, I decided to make a recipe that I’d saved from a free Cook’s Illustrated email a few weeks ago.  Sadly, the “Caramelized Pears with Blue Cheese and Black Pepper-Caramel Sauce” recipe no longer seems to be available for free on the site, although it only costs $34.95 a year for an online subscription.

Like Emmons’ recipe, the Cook’s Illustrated approach only calls for a handful of ingredients, but it requires much more attention.  The pears are poached and then caramelized in a simple syrup (water and sugar).  You have to watch the pears and the sauce carefully so they don’t burn.

I was attracted to the recipe because it called for salt and roughly crushed black pepper in the caramel sauce. Having recently blogged about salted caramel ice cream from batch ice cream and salted caramel on chocolate cup cakes from The Cupcakory, I was curious to see what black-pepper caramel sauce would taste like.

The final product

Caramelized Pears with Blue Cheese and Black Pepper-Caramel Sauce

Plating the finished dish was like creating a sculpture.  You stand the two halves of each pear up against each other, with a wedge of blue cheese stuffed in between, and then you drizzle the black pepper caramel sauce over it.

The result was a wonderful mixture of sweet, spicy and salty flavors. While Michelle and I enjoyed Didi Emmons’ recipe, we both preferred the caramelized pears with the blue cheese.   But if you can find them, either recipe is well worth “poaching” for a fine ending to a fall or winter meal.

How to (Not) Cook Kale

The kale that I actually enjoyed eating.

I finally get it.  The secret to cooking kale is not to cook it.

I enjoy eating most types of greens, and I cook most of them the same way. I rinse them really well because they can often be gritty, tear off any nasty looking bits, remove any big, tough stems, cut or tear the greens into smallish pieces, and steam them in a small amount of water until they are beginning to soften but are still crunchy.  I drain the greens in a colander.  Then I spray some olive oil cooking spray into a non-stick pan, heat the pan, and sauté the greens for a few minutes.  I season them with salt and pepper, garlic, and something spicy, like chipotle.  It’s a tasty and healthy way to eat greens.

Kale, however, is one of the few greens that I don’t like, and Michelle likes it  even less than I do.  As far as I’m concerned, kale tastes like curly green cardboard, however you cook it.  It’s tough, and it doesn’t have much flavor.

As I reported in my post, Improving Black Women (and everyone else)’s Diets By Any Greens Necessary, author and nutritionist Tracye Lynn McQuirter is full of excitement about eating raw kale.  She swears that her kale salad recipe is the most popular one in her book, By Any Greens Necessary.

When I confessed to having a bad attitude about kale in last week’s post, I got a couple of comments from kale defenders about how great it is.  So I decided it was time to try McQuirter’s recipe.

The recipe is simple, but it calls for a couple of ingredients that you may not have hanging around the house, unless you are already a health nut, in which case you probably don’t need to read this blog.

The vegan equivalent of fish sauce

Unusual ingredient number one is Bragg Liquid Aminos, which is sort of the vegan version of fish sauce.  It smells like dirty underwear and tastes pretty salty. I know I just made it sound terrible, but it actually tastes like the vegan equivalent of fish sauce and it’s really good for you, so I think you should give it a try.

Unusual ingredient number two is nutritional yeast, which I haven’t eaten since the 1980s.  My housemates at the time used to sprinkle it on everything they cooked and I got sick of it. Now that I recall, nutritional yeast is actually very good sprinkled on popcorn, but I digress.

Other than kale and the two previously mentioned items, the only other ingredients in the salad are olive oil, chopped red onion, chopped garlic, and cayenne pepper.  After you mix everything up in a bowl, McQuirter recommends you marinate it at room temperature for about a half hour before serving.

Michelle and I ate the salad with our dinner last night, and, to my amazement, we enjoyed it!  Michelle even went back for a second helping. Raw kale actually has more flavor than cooked kale, and, although quite chewy, it didn’t make me think I was eating cardboard.  While the recipe called for more raw onion and garlic than I care for, the combination of the onion, garlic and cayenne gave it some bite, and the two mystery ingredients gave it a salty, almost—dare I say it—meaty flavor.

While I don’t think kale will ever become one of my top ten favorite greens, now that I’ve learned how to (not) cook it, I won’t be upset if it shows up in my CSA box again.  So thank you, Tracye Lynn McQuirter!

Improving Black Women (and everyone else)’s Diets By Any Greens Necessary

The crowd outside this year's Boston Vegetarian Food Festival

Although vegetarianism has a reputation for only appealing to crunchy granola types, I’ve always found a surprising range of fellow vegetarians to share recipes with.  The local food movement, along with concerns about health and climate change, seems to have inspired even more people to start exploring vegetarian food.

I knew that something was different this year when I walked up to the Reggie Lewis Athletic Center in Roxbury, where the annual Boston Vegetarian Food Festival is held, and saw a crowd lined up at a vegan frozen dessert truck, waiting for their soft serve. The company, which calls itself Like No Udder , was doing boffo business. It was cold out, so I was able to resist temptation.

Inside, the festival was just as crowded. The diversity of products and people was truly impressive. From vegan shoes to coconut milk ice cream, the 15th annual Boston Vegetarian Food Festival—now expanded to two days—had it all.

For inspiration, I went to see Tracye Lynn McQuirter speak.  McQuirter, author of By Any Greens Necessary: A Revolutionary Guide for Black Women Who Want to Eat Great, Get Healthy, Lose Weight, and Look Phat, has been a vegan for over twenty years.  She’s a great advertisement for plant-based diets. A nutritionist, she’s a beautiful black woman who bursts with excitement about eating raw kale.  She swears her kale recipe is the most popular one in the book.

McQuirter explains, “I’m targeting black women because we are in a health crisis – 85 percent of us are overweight.  But everyone in this country can benefit from eating plant-based food.”

When my sister Louise and I went to hear her speak at the Chicago Green Festival this spring, the crowd was much less diverse, and McQuirter was much preachier. This time, she focused on her personal story of how hearing 60’s comedian, civil rights activist, and vegetarian Dick Gregory speak when she was a student at Amherst College inspired her to go vegan.

She encouraged everyone to take their health and eating habits to the next level.  For example, she suggested that non-vegetarians visit the Meatless Monday web site and go meatless once a week.

Although, of course, I want everyone to eat healthier food and reduce the amount of meat they eat, I’m particularly eager to have the people I know and love in the black community change their diets, so they will live long and prosper. I was glad to see how many black people were in the audience for McQuirter’s talk, because I think she’s very persuasive, especially now she’s toned down the lecturing.

I bought her book at the Green Fest, but immediately gave it to my mother-in-law, Doris, so I haven’t had a chance to try any of her recipes yet. I bought another copy today and am eager to see if she can change my attitude—which is bad—about kale. As far as I’m concerned, kale is just not necessary. If McQuirter can persuade me to love it, there’s hope for all of us.