The scent of cumin hits an ancestral note for me; it frees the feels, right up there with sauteed onions or sizzling garlic: uniquely and pungently itself. Familiar and welcoming, yes, but otherworldly, too. In just a handful of homes do I smell it, that pervasive, bulk-food spice cabinet smell: cumin. It is the fragrance of family, of home and, to me, the fragrance of “you are welcome here.”
When we moved in with our Colombian dad, I was six, maybe seven years old. Everything about him (after four or five years apart) and our new home was exotic, intriguing and, at times, embarrassing. As a single dad with no experience, we endured a lot of weird food combos — tuna, Kraft singles, green olives, cheap bread. Oyster stew? Guava paste and queso blanco?
But ohhhh, his black beans.
They were special; they were on purpose. You had to plan ahead, soaking them overnight. This meant he was focused on us, thinking of us, cooking for us. The sight of that bowl, filled to the brim with shiny dark “pebbles” in a scrim of purple-gray foam, stirred relief and joy: Dad was in a good mood! He was planning a dinner for us! Would he make arepas, too?
His recipe was basic. Soak overnight. Rinse. Large soup pot, fresh water. He’d dash the air above with cumin and adobo. Salt and pepper; onions, garlic. He’d sear and slice a rope of spicy sausage. Then came the yummy part: the beans simmering all day long. Tendrils of steam, densely layered aromas, teased my nose; made my tummy rumble and my mouth water. Decades onward, black beans and rice are still a cherished family meal.
Missing or needing “home” in my early 20s and on my own, I cooked the family black beans for comfort. By my 30s, they had become a go-to for potlucks and parties. Today, at 50, my family black beans are still gobbled with gusto. Never have I tasted black beans prepared by another as complexly delicious as mine.
Yes, I boast. And no; no recipe.
I cook them when the heart requests and no batch is ever the same. Each is unique to the season, to my fluctuating pantry or fridge and to whatever I have harvested out back or palmed around town.
It often starts around a chunk of protein: muscle, bone and bean give way, melding. Distinct terroirs become one. With a porcelain spoon (a burnt tongue can’t taste) I sample every few hours to learn more of the meat hunted, gifted or purchased. Mountain lion from Oak, javelina rump and feral boar from Martha. Elk, deer, even Jacober Brothers moo moos when they still grazed our watershed. Ground pork or bacon from Potter Farms, water buffalo bred and raised by friends. Each animal has its own savory slant.
Simmering, simmering; meat, bean and bone surrender into succulence. The opposite is true of loose grind. High quality grind is not a mushy paste, but squiggly strands of “broken” meat: small morsels, chewy and juicy. Something to bite into. And encased sausage, mixed with its own array of seasons? Nom, nom!
Enjoying a beer? One for you, one for the crock. (Tequila works, too.) Frozen stock? Chuck it in. Dried porcini from the Lake Christine burn scar? Why not? Two squares of forgotten chocolate, 80%? Go for it, 100%. Cayenne for bite; marjoram to marry wild and domestic notes. Coriander, Worcestershire, tomatoes, poblanos… Any other leftovers?
My dad is an artist. He collects oddities from Nature and integrates them into expansive dioramas that he carves and paints in the magical realism born of his native Colombia. Watching him prepare black beans, among his many other life-long rituals, taught me about living and being. Growing, hunting, gathering, sourcing, harvesting, storing, planning, cooking, sharing, showing: each of these verbs — in fact, every and any verb — can be expressed artfully.
So I crumble silver-green leaves of culinary sage from a bundle tied in twine and dried last summer. I sprinkle thyme and last autumn’s breath from a pretty jar diverted from the recycle bin. I pull bay leaves from a plant I had ordered and grown in the old greenhouse, one leaf, two; don’t want a bitter edge. No measuring spoons; it’s all in the feel — but yes, add a carmine dune of smoked paprika; golden mesa of ground mustard seed. Celery seed, tiny with explosive flavor. Cardamom — just a smidge to see what it does?
Amusing to note that this is really just a huge pot of flora with a lil’ bit of fauna when you compare it to all the boxes, bags, bottles and jars on the grocery shelves… But these beans, here? So darn beautiful to assemble, to savor, to smell. And soon? To share and consume.