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.

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.

Cooking Up a CSF Feast with a Jody Adams Bluefish Recipe

Grilling the bluefish

Grilled Bluefish with Pomegranite Glaze

Michelle and I spent six woman-hours last night cooking a delicious dinner featuring the bluefish from our final Community Supported Fishery (CSF) delivery for the August 2010 season. The six hours doesn’t include the time I spent trolling the aisles of Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods looking for pomegranate molasses (couldn’t find it so we made our own from pomegranate juice), chicory (must not be in season, so I bought other greens), and whole coriander seeds (not in stock, had to make do with ground coriander).

Cooking molasses

Cooking down the pomegranate juice into molasses

The pomegranate glaze features the aforementioned pomegranate molasses, garlic, red onion, mint, coriander seeds and orange zest, and it’s a delicious complement to bluefish, which I always think of as a very “fishy” fish because it’s so dark and intense. Although the molasses has sugar in it, there’s only a hint of sweetness in the sauce.  The rich flavor is a perfect foil for the oiliness of the bluefish.

The reason the dinner took so long to make—besides making the molasses from scratch—was that it was actually five dishes. In addition to the bluefish, the recipe called for “Dukkah,” garlic yogurt sauce, farro, and “Fiery Greens.”  While the entire recipe is not online, there’s a link for the fish and a similar yogurt sauce at

Farro with carrots, celery and onions

Farro, which I’ve never made at home before, is a delicious healthy grain that reminded me of barley, although the grains are larger and toothier.  Adams adds the farro to a sauté of onion, celery, carrots and garlic and cooks it with chicken stock—we used veggie stock—and bay leaves.

Cooking the greens

Fiery Garlic Greens featuring broccoli rabe and arugula

The greens are blanched and then sautéed with lots of olive oil, garlic, and hot pepper flakes. The Dukkah is an Egyptian seed, nut and spice mix of blanched almonds, hazelnuts, macadamia, coriander seeds, cumin seeds, and coconut, all of which have to be separately toasted and then ground together.

The Six Hour Recipe

Dinner was worth the wait!

The mixture of all these tastes on the plate—sweet, spicy, fishy, oily, salty, bitter—was what made it worth the effort.

Besides the recipe, the other star of the evening was the bluefish from our CSF, Cape Ann Fresh Catch. I was delighted to open my email on Tuesday and find that the fish of the day was a gorgeous two-pound bluefish fillet. I picked up my share at Community Servings, cut it in half, carefully wrapped the pieces in plastic wrap and freezer bags and froze them. When we opened one of the packages, we defrosted it and it was still beautiful and as good as fresh.

Our CSF bluefish

Beautiful fresh bluefish from Cape Ann Fresh Catch CSF

This is the first time that I’ve belonged to a CSF, and it’s been a wonderful opportunity to support local, sustainable fishing and learn a little about the ups and downs of the industry. Each week, we get an email telling us what they’ve caught, the boat that caught it, a little information about the fish, a recipe, and a blog post.  Over the six weeks, we’ve enjoyed a variety of fish, including hake, fish dabs and bluefish.

The catch—no pun intended—is sometimes there is no catch.  Deliveries have been cancelled due to quality issues and weather. While as a CSF member, you share the risk with the fisher folk, Cape Ann has made an extraordinary effort to provide us with the best possible fish each week.

If you’re lucky enough to live in their delivery area, I encourage you to sign up for Cape Ann’s next season, beginning November 1,  or check out this list of CSFs around the country.

How to Make the World’s Best Crab Cakes

Brand name products

The two most important ingredients in the world's best crab cakes

Michelle grew up in Baltimore, where they make the world’s best crab cakes.  I don’t let her order crab cakes anywhere besides “Bawlmore” or DC, because they never taste as good as the ones back home and her disappointment makes her–shall we say—a little crabby.  Since Michelle’s mother, Doris, has been visiting us for the past few weeks, I asked her to cook up a batch of Maryland Crab Cakes for Michelle’s birthday party.

“If you want to make Maryland crab cakes,” Doris told me, “you have to use Maryland crab.”  According to Doris, Maryland blue crab is the sweetest crab you can buy. Phillips is the big name in crab meat in Maryland, so even though it’s a lot more expensive than the stuff you find in the tuna fish aisle, we went over to the fish counter at the grocery store and bought 6 8-ounce cans of Phillips crab meat.  The lump meat is the best part of the crab, but it costs more, so we economized by buying 4 cans of lump and 2 cans of the claw meat.

Doris learned how to make crab cakes from her mother and doesn’t use a recipe, but I watched her make the cakes and wrote down what she did so that you, dear reader, can make the world’s best crab cakes at home.

Doris opens a can of crab meat

First, she opened up all those cans of crab meat (3 pounds) and emptied them into a large bowl. Then she mixed in two tablespoons of mustard.  According to Doris, you can use any kind of mustard, but we used French’s because I think it adds a little tang as well as a little bite. She added about ¾ cup of mayonnaise (we used light).

She cracked 4 eggs and added them to the mix, along with 1 tablespoon of Old Bay, several dashes of Tabasco, and black pepper.  Then she asked me for red pepper, but since we hadn’t bought any at the store, we didn’t put it in. We also didn’t have any lemon pepper, so I squeezed about a tablespoon of fresh lemon juice into the bowl. She usually uses parsley flakes, but since I had some fresh parsley in the fridge, I chopped that up and added it, too.

Doris adds the French's Mustard to the mixture

Another secret to making great crab cakes, according to Doris, is not to use a lot of filler. You need some binding, but if you put too much in, you can’t taste the crab.  Some people like to use bread crumbs, but Doris’ family prefers Ritz crackers.  She opened up a whole sleeve of Ritz crackers and kind of crushed them with her hands before she added them to the bowl.  She thought the mixture seemed too dry, so she added 3 more eggs, for a total of 7.

When she’s home, Doris uses an ice cream scoop to form the cakes, but since we don’t have a scoop, I found a nice round spoon that probably holds about 3 tablespoons.  She scooped up crab cake mixture and then used her hands to squish it into a 3-4 inch round cake, which she flattened a little once she put in on a plate.  We had enough mixture for about 4 dozen cakes.

Doris forms the crab cakes

Outside of knowing the right consistency for the crab mixture, the hardest part about making the crab cakes was frying them.  At home, Doris said she uses a cast iron skillet with just a little bit of canola oil, so we got out our skillet and heated up 2 tablespoons of oil.  Unfortunately, however, we don’t use our cast iron skillet very much, so it’s not well seasoned, like Doris’.  So the first batch of crab cakes stuck to the pan and didn’t brown evenly.  We tried a nonstick skillet and the cakes stuck in that one, too, so we went back to the cast iron and make sure that the pan was well coated in oil for the last two batches.  The results were nicely browned.

Now you know how to make the world’s best crab cakes, I have to teach you how to eat them, Bawlmore style.  Get out some crackers—the Ritz crackers you used in the cakes will do, but Doris prefers Keeblers Reduced-Fat Club Crackers—and make a little sandwich with the French’s Mustard.  The sweet, dense, juiciness of the crab cake blends with the tang of the mustard, the salt of the crackers, and the result is a taste of heaven.

Now, you, too, can eat Maryland crab cakes outside of Maryland – you just have to make them yourself.

Crab Cakes on Foodista