It all began to come together at a luncheon with one of Southern California's trendiest restaurateurs, his wife and a well-known restaurant critic. To no one's surprise, the subjects discussed kept drifting back to food. Who was doing what differently? What new foods were surfacing? Which would disappear quickly and which would make its mark in Southern California's always interesting but eternally restless search for the very latest "in" food?
And what kept turning up as an entry in the competition for a spot on that elusive list of currently chic foods? Nothing more unlikely than good old black beans. That's right, earthy, plebeian, yet ever-tasty, black or turtle beans seem to be making a bid to upgrade their lowly status in the food chain.
The critic had sampled a fish dish at the New York restaurant One Fifth that proved intriguing. Chef Leslie Revsin (who has since left the restaurant) served grouper on a big pool of "quite peppery black beans." A lot of spicy beans, whole beans . . . not a sauce, the critic stressed. And no, the recipe had not been requested, but the decidedly unusual combination "tasted wonderful."
The restaurateur wasn't at all surprised. He, too, had come across black beans being served in other than traditional fashion at some of the more upbeat, popular trend-setting dining spots. Some he liked; others, well. . . .
So does all this mean that black beans are truly destined to turn into glamorous, sought-after menu enhancers? Maybe--but more likely they will simply begin to appear on fashionable tables in some unusual--for them--forms.
All of which caused the old creative juices to begin perking. Just what are the possibilities of utilizing as simple a food as black beans in unexpected ways? Nothing bizarre, mind you, but in reasonable and realistic recipes that would expand the use of this dry bean that has always been more popular in Latin America than here.
As happens when such a subject is, forgive the pun, tossed into the pot around The Times' Food department, suggestions were rapidly forthcoming. "How about . . ." and "what if we. . . ." quickly became very familiar words as innumerable possibilities were mentioned. Some suggestions elicited nothing more than a derisive snort or giggle. Others were obviously well worth pursuing. So we did . . . with results that definitely remove black beans from the "soup only" category.
Black beans tend to lose their intense blackness when cooked, becoming a deep purple color. Puree the cooked beans and you end up with a mauve-colored sauce that may taste wonderful but needs some outside visual assistance to be appetizing in appearance. That was something that had to be taken into consideration as recipes were developed.
Another factor that had to be considered is that, as with most dried legumes, the unseasoned cooked beans are somewhat bland in flavor. This was easier to manage, however, as a broad array of spices, herbs and flavorful foods such as citrus could be combined with the beans to provide any missing flavor.
Keeping these basic attributes in mind, we chose what seemed to be a representative group of non-traditional recipes for these beans. The results were delicious, upscale and quite honestly fun and practical. Far from ordinary, the following recipes should fit very nicely into both everyday and party menus for those looking for "something new."
POACHED CHICKEN WITH BLACK BEAN SAUCE
4 chicken breast halves, boned
1 cup chicken broth
1/4 cup dry white wine
1 (16-ounce) can black beans
2 teaspoons balsamic vinegar
Dash cayenne pepper
Remove skin from chicken, if desired. Bring chicken broth to boil in skillet over medium heat. Add chicken breasts, white wine and season to taste with salt and pepper. Cover and simmer 15 to 20 minutes or until chicken is tender.
Puree undrained black beans in blender until smooth. Place in saucepan with vinegar. Heat over medium heat, stirring frequently until heated through. Season to taste with cayenne. If sauce becomes too thick, stir in 1 to 2 tablespoons chicken broth used in cooking chicken breasts.
Place black bean sauce on individual plate or serving platter. Arrange drained chicken breast on center. Spoon over Salsa. Garnish with tomato rose, if desired. Makes 4 servings.
Note: In place of chicken, sole, halibut or other fish may be substituted. Salsa
1 large tomato, finely diced
1 serrano chile, minced, optional
1 small red or yellow onion, finely diced
1 clove garlic, minced
1/2 cup cilantro, chopped
Combine tomato, chile, onion, garlic and cilantro in bowl. Season to taste with salt and pepper. BLACK BEAN POT STICKERS
1 pound lean ground pork
1 (16-ounce) can black beans, drained and chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
1/2 cup chopped water chestnuts
1/3 cup chopped green onions
1 tablespoon soy sauce
2 teaspoons sesame oil
1 tablespoon minced ginger root
1 1/2 packages (about 75) won ton wrappers, preferably round wrappers
Chicken broth or water, about 2 cups