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Let’s Cook Some Black Bean Soup

Black bean soup
Photo: Albert Burneko/Illustration: Chris Thompson

We’re cooking some dang black bean soup! You and me, right now! Yes! That’s it! This discussion is over! I don’t have time for any of your bellyaching, goddammit! Let’s cook some black bean soup.

Here are some things you will need.

I suppose you don’t need to be told that you’ll need some black beans. You could go for dry beans here if you like, for cost savings and/or purity and/or maximum control over the final result; that is your business. However! I want to accommodate people who do not have time for all that shit—people who, like me, will simply forget to soak the beans overnight, and then even if they did somehow remember to do that would also then forget to start simmering them early enough to serve black bean soup before bedtime. And the procedure for making black bean soup from dry beans is different enough from the procedure for making it with canned beans—the quantities of liquid and cooking time needed are just hugely different!—that trying to fit both of them in this blog will make it stupidly long. It will be like writing two blogs. And frankly I am just not willing to write two blogs! So from here on we’re going to proceed as though you are using canned beans. Specifically, we are going to proceed as though you are feeding a plausible combination of four humans with reasonable appetites, and are therefore going to use two 29-ounce cans of black beans.

You do not need to do anything with the canned beans the night before you make black bean soup. They can just hang out in their cans! Whenever you’re ready to start this job in earnest—so, like, maybe 90 minutes before dinner?—dump the cans in a colander and run them under a cold faucet to rinse off some of the beany can liquid.

You will need some cooking liquid. This absolutely 100-percent can just be some cold water. It’s fine. If you happen to have some stock—chicken, beef, vegetable, whatever—with a fairly neutral flavor profile (so, like, it’s not gonna taste like pho spices), that’s fine. If you want to go for some zany [Your Name]’s Signature Bold Flavors combination of stock and beer and friggin’ malt vinegar or whatever, I really think that you should try to relax more. But that is your business, and I do not give a damn. Whatever you decide to use (water’s fine!), plan on keeping, say, a quart? Two quarts? On standby. You may end up using less than that.

You will need a nice big yellow onion, diced. You’ll need a couple of hot peppers of your choice, minced. Red Fresnos are nice; jalapeños are delightful; you’re free to go for ghost peppers or Scotch bonnets or friggin’ Carolina Reapers or whatever if that is how you do things. A nice big red bell pepper would do pretty nicely in your bean soup; it’ll add some welcome sweetness. And hey, go ahead and mince two cloves of garlic while you’re at it. Cut a lime in half and put it on standby.

It is not Tomato Time yet, not nearly. Therefore my firm commitment to The Ethics will not allow me to recommend that you purchase and dice a tomato. I cannot! But if you should happen across a 28-ounce can of diced tomatoes—the ones that are just canned in tomato-y water, not the kind that have like basil or any other stuff in there—that would be quite nice, and will taste better than the dogshit fresh tomatoes you can get this time of year. Drain out the tomato-y water and keep the tomato chunks.

You will need a lil’ pinch of ground cumin. You’ll need salt, naturally, and a few grinds of the ol’ black pepper mill would not hurt anything. If you can score some dried Mexican oregano—Mexican and not Eurasian oregano, Lippia graveolens, not the stuff that goes in Sunday tomato sauce—a pinch of that will really make your black bean soup sing, but you can go without and it will be fine. You’ll need a very minor amount of some cooking oil. This can be vegetable oil, or light olive oil, or frickin’ grape seed oil, or schmaltz, or frickin’ rendered bacon fat. It can be Pam cooking spray for all I care. You don’t need much of it, a scant tablespoon of any of those oils or a modest spritz of the spray; just enough to get the vegetal stuff sweating in the pot a few minutes from now.

All of that stuff goes in the soup. Then there’s stuff that goes on the soup, at the end. Slice some scallions on a bias so you get nice lil’ diagonal slivers of scallion. Chop some cilantro. A little sour cream fancied up with lime juice and garlic would be lovely, but you can do without. The black bean soup in the photograph back up at the top of this blog has chunks of grilled chicken breast in it, and I really can’t recommend that enough, but producing grilled chicken breast for you to put atop your black bean soup is a whole other dang blog, which I already wrote a long time ago. Some queso fresco or Cotija cheese would be cool. If you want to get zany and serve your black bean soup with, like, cornbread or tortilla chips or whatever, suit yourself. Can we just cook already? Let’s cook.

Bust out a nice big pot or Dutch oven, warm it up over medium-high heat, add your oil, and dump your onions and peppers in there, along with a pinch of salt. Toss this stuff around with your cooking implement—wooden spoon, silicone spatula, repurposed flip-flop sandal—of choice. It’ll benefit from a solid 10 minutes of sweating, with the occasional toss.

Things are gonna happen all at once now. Add the minced garlic and the cumin to the pot and toss things around in there; as soon as you can smell the garlic, add the drained tomatoes and beans and enough cooking liquid so all that stuff’s maybe half an inch underwater (or under-stock, or under your weird beery concoction or whatever). Toss in another pinch of salt and grind in some pepper, and chuck in your nice big pinch of that Mexican—Mexican, that is!—oregano, if you’re using any. Stir all of this around with your implement. It’s fine to taste the liquid and adjust the seasonings as you like; there’s no raw meat in there to give you parasites, unless there is, in which case you have gone badly off-script here and I disavow any and all of your results and indemnify myself against responsibility for any and all gastrointestinal distress such as you might experience in the aftermath of consuming the product of your cooking efforts.

That was most of it. When the liquid in there comes up to a boil, turn the heat down to bring it down to a low simmer. Stick a tight lid on there and go find something to do for, oh, an hour. A walk? The weather’s pretty nice these days. You can manage a short and leisurely walk in an hour. Truth be told, with canned beans you could eat this stuff right now and it’d be fine, but an hour will be enough time for the flavors to come together some in a way that is good.

An hour has passed; the kitchen smells great. I hope you went for a walk! You deserved it. Oh well. Now it is Decision Time. Pull the lid off of your black bean soup; with your implement, stir it around just in case anything stuck to the bottom of the pot while you were gone. Smells great! Looks … like a pot of dark water with some beans and translucent onion bits in it. Not real great-looking!

Here is the Decision. If you have an immersion blender, you can stick that sucker down in there and whirl this stuff into a smoother, more homogenous version of itself, stopping before it becomes uniformly smooth because a certain amount of beany chunkiness is good for black bean soup. If you do not have an immersion blender but do have a regular blender and lots of patience, you can transfer small amounts of your soup to the regular blender—small amounts, small small small, small, emphasis on not-largeness here, so that the steam does not blow the lid off the blender and send scalding black bean soup all over your kitchen and cause you to regret every prior moment of your whole life—and give them a few pulses, just to beat a little pleasingly thick smoothness to the soup without eradicating all trace of individual beans, and then return them to some other sort of vessel. If none of this will work for you, due to a lack of either blending apparatuses or patience for this shit, I am here to tell you that this is fine. It’s fine. It is fine to just serve a bowl of this bean soup exactly as it is.

Whichever way you went, squeeze the juice out of one of those lime halves into the pot, and stir it in. This is a nice addition here at the end.

Hey, speaking of which, that was the end! It’s time to serve and eat some black bean soup. Ladle it into bowls; top each bowl with, at the very least, some of the sliced scallions and chopped cilantro from way back in the ingredients section of this blog. If you managed to grill some chicken during that hour-long break earlier, hey, that kicks ass! Hack it into chunks and scatter those on there. If you went for cheese, great; if you went for some sort of creamy type of deal, also great; if you went for French’s Yellow Mustard, no no no, why, I’ll never forgive you for this. And now eat. Your black bean soup is hearty and hot, and the other kind of hot, brightened by the lime and the fresh green stuff. It’s good! That’s it! End of discussion!