A Bean Recipe Seasoned with Communism

In the 1950s and '60s, no Cuban-American bride worked her way through a pile of wedding gifts without finding at least one copy of Cocino al Minuto or Cocina Criolla, the books written by Nitza Villapol, often called the "Julia Child of Cuba." To this day, her books remain indispensable in Cuban households worldwide, and countless eaters have tasted her black beans or arroz con pollo. But Villapol, who lived in Cuba, never received a penny for her U.S. sales, and though everyone loves Nitza's recipes, they don't necessarily love her politics.

Villapol was an enthusiastic Communist right up until her death in 1998, supportive of both Castro and the Revolution. And both her books and her long-running cooking show reflected her sympathies, with lots of energy devoted to finding substitutions for the meat, milk, spices, and other goods unavailable in post-revolutionary Cuba.

Comparing a pre-Revolution copy of Cocino al Minuto with a later one is definitely eye-opening. When first published in the '50s, Cuba was almost as beef-mad as Argentina and her recipes reflect this: palomilla steak, vaca frita, ropa vieja. In later editions, Villapol chides her readers for eating too much meat and extols Cuba's native fruits, vegetables, and fish instead. Later editions also contain page after page of substitutions for cooks having trouble finding ingredients in Communist Cuba. Need to know how to make mayonesa without eggs? Without oil? Without vinegar? Nitza knew how.

Most of Villapol's recipes have never been translated (though this is changing due to the blog La Cocina de Christina), so I feel like it's a service to humankind to pass along this recipe for Villapol's Cuban black beans, which was given to me by my sister-in-law, loosely translated from Cocina Criolla. With her innovative techniques, Villapol wrests more flavor from a few simple, inexpensive pantry ingredients than I ever thought possible. The recipe is vegan, freezes beautifully, and is delicious served atop white rice with lechon asado. The beans are also magically flavorful enough for adults, yet not too spicy for kids.

Cuban Black Beans

adapted from Cocina Criolla by Nitza Villapo

1 pound dried black beans, rinsed and sorted
2-3 green peppers, cut into two-inch chunks
1/3 to 2/3 cup olive oil
1 onion, diced
4 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 teaspoon oregano
2 tablespoons sugar
2 teaspoons white vinegar
2 teaspoons white wine

1. Soak beans in 10 cups of water with two cut up green peppers for at least six hours or overnight, covered.

2. When beans are finished soaking, bring to a boil in soaking liquid. Simmer 45 minutes.

3. In a separate skillet, heat olive oil. Use 1/3 cup if you want the dish to be healthier, use 2/3 cup if you want the dish to be the best beans you’ve ever tasted. Add onion, and, if you wish, the third green pepper, and cook until soft and translucent. Stir in garlic and cook until fragrant, 30 seconds.

4. When onion and peppers are soft, put them in a blender along with 1 cup of black beans and liquid. Blend until smooth and add back to the pot of beans. If you prefer a chunkier sauce, you can just blend the beans and leave the peppers and onions whole.

5. Simmer one hour.

6. Add 4 teaspoons salt, 1/2 teaspoon pepper, 1/4 teaspoon oregano, 1 bay leaf, and 2 tablespoons sugar. Stir and simmer for one hour.

7. Add 2 teaspoons white vinegar and 2 teaspoons white wine. Stir and simmer over low heat until beans are soft and thick. If beans are not thick enough, leave uncovered for the last simmer.