Rice and Beans: The Center of the Ancient World Cuisine
Sep 20, 2016 01:30PM ● Published by Melanie Heisinger
By Carol Ritchie
The recent summer games— the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro—brought much attention to Brazil beyond the sports: the people and South American culture, samba music and amazing sights, miles of white sandy beaches and spectacular fresh food. The favorite recipe at the top of the list is Brazil’s national dish: feijoada, a hearty meat and black bean stew, served with white rice. It is a full meal deal, sure to satisfy every hungry appetite.
Many flavors make up this famous dish, however, rice and beans are at its very core. Without rice and beans, this simple stew would simply be a pot of cooked meats. Rice and beans, together or on their own, are found at the center of many delicious dishes from around the world. Feijoada is a grand example of this. Brazilians know how to do rice and beans magnificently. And we will get to that. But first, let’s look into the varieties of rice and beans that make up so many delicious dishes around the world.
Rice is an ancient grain; a staple for a majority of countries around the world. Classified by size, rice varieties are short-, medium- or long-grain, and cook to different consistencies depending on starch and moisture content. Short-grain rice is plump and nearly round. It cooks to a sticky consistency and is often referred to as “sticky rice.” Other names for short-grain rice include, pearl rice and glutinous rice (even though it’s gluten-free!).
Arborio rice is a short-grain rice used for risotto, a creamy Italian rice dish made by sautéing the rice and chopped onions (or shallots) in butter before adding a rich stock, such as chicken, vegetable or seafood, a little bit at a time, waiting for the rice to fully absorb the stock before adding more until the rice cannot hold any more. It is a time-consuming cooking process, but the results are definitely worth the wait and effort to stand by the pot to stir the rice constantly while the broth is added slowly. Other flavors, such as cheese, wine, herbs, chopped vegetables, mushrooms and chicken or seafood, are added at the discretion of the cook for a delightful dish that serves as a one-dish meal.
Medium-grain rice is not as starchy as short-grain. Its shape is longer and not as fat as short-grain, and it will remain separate through its cooking process. When cooked, it will tend to clump together as it cools. Long-grain rice, as its classification suggests, is much longer than it is wide. It remains separate throughout cooking and will stay separate as it cools. The Indian variety basmati is a long-grain rice with a very pleasant, flowery aroma and flavor. Jasmine rice from Thailand is a cheaper alternative to basmati, with similar aromatic properties.
Rice is also divided into two categories: white and brown. White rice is stripped of its husk, bran and germ, while brown rice is the entire grain with only the inedible outer husk removed. Brown rice is more nutritious with high fiber content, and it has a nutty flavor and chewy texture. While white rice is white in color, brown rice is light tan. Brown rice takes longer to cook than white, and it tends to go rancid much sooner than white rice. Instant or quick-cooking rice has been partially cooked, dehydrated and packaged for speedy preparations, but it really doesn’t take much longer to cook regular varieties of rice and the results are much preferred in texture and taste.
Asian countries are known for creating fried rice dishes where rice is the main ingredient tossed with chopped fresh vegetables, cooked egg and soy sauce. The Spanish paella is a saffron-infused rice dish where the rice serves as a crispy, colorful backdrop to an exciting array of meats, vegetables and fresh seafood. A similar Mexican rice with flavors of tomatoes and chile peppers is always a perfect accompaniment to Tex-Mex dishes.
Like rice, beans have a long history. These seeded pods of various legumes are among the oldest known foods. Beans are available in two categories: fresh and dried. Often sold in their pods, fresh beans are eaten both in the shell (string beans, wax beans or haricot vert), or out of the shell (lima, fava beans or edamame).
Dried beans have been shelled, and, as named, have been dehydrated. They require soaking before cooking (or long cooking times) to properly hydrate and thoroughly cook the beans. Dried beans are available in hundreds of varieties. Some favorites include: pinto beans, black beans, white beans, navy beans, kidney beans, cannellini beans, appaloosa beans and chickpeas. Dried beans have high protein content and are a staple throughout the world.
Many countries have created favorite dishes around the bean. In France, a cassoulet is a slowly-cooked, covered casserole of white beans and various meats (sausages, pork and duck or goose). Tex-Mex and Mexican meals are never complete without a side dish of refried beans, red beans or pinto beans that have been cooked, mashed and fried (often in lard) in a skillet on the stove. And New England claims title to the perfect pot of beans: Boston baked beans, “a mélange of navy beans or pea beans (the latter a favorite of New Englanders), salt pork, molasses and brown sugar, baked in a casserole for hours until tender,” as described in The New Food Lover’s Companion, a great food and recipe information source by Sharon Tyler Herbst and Ron Herbst (Fourth Edition, 2007), the go-to reference compendium for the rice and beans information noted above, and much, much more.
Rice and Beans
Red beans and rice is a Louisiana favorite. The beans are cooked slowly with favorite Cajun and Creole seasonings and bacon, ham or salt pork, then served with its natural thick gravy over cooked white rice. This has become a well-known dish throughout the United States, and around the world, served in many variations by creative restaurant chefs and countless home cooks.
And that brings us back to where we began: Brazil’s feijoada. It may be the pièce de résistance of “rice and beans” recipes. It is serious, yet simple. It is the most famous dish of Brazil and is prepared by a majority of cooks in Rio every Saturday. It is filling, it satisfies and it serves many. It’s a big stew of black beans and succulent meats. And to complement the feast, collard greens and juicy slices of orange are served on the side.
Meats play an important role in feijoada, but the dish starts with beans - black beans. Dried black beans are picked through to remove any shriveled beans or stones. Yes, sometimes a small pebble or two find their way into bags of beans. Always sort through dried beans before cooking. You might save yourself from an unpleasant experience at the dinner table! Rinse the beans thoroughly and you’re ready to cook. Dried beans often require soaking in water before cooking, but this dish cooks for such a long time on the stove, soaking the beans is optional.
A variety of meats offer many flavors to feijoada. Chunks of beef top round are common, as are smoked sausages. Chorizo sausage is a good choice; Spanish or Mexican chorizo will do. Dried beef and bacon are also commonly used ingredients. Pancetta is a favorite choice. And in a traditional feijoada, you might find pig’s feet or ears, beef cheeks or oxtail. The choice is yours. My recipe for Feijoada (see recipe) uses meats that are easy to find in local American markets.
Collard greens, cooked in olive oil with chopped onion and salt and pepper to taste, is a requisite side dish that fits perfectly in flavor with the black beans and meats. Farofa is a side dish made from toasted farina (manioc flour made from yuca root) and is used in a fashion similar to bread crumbs. The dried yuca flour - also known as cassava - is toasted in butter in a skillet on the stove, often with other ingredients, such as scallions (my personal favorite), finely chopped vegetables, chile peppers, peas or corn or scrambled eggs, and served alongside (or sprinkled over the top of) feijoada to impart a wonderful nutty flavor and to soak up the cooking juices from the meat and beans.
White rice is commonly prepared for this Brazilian dinner feast. The fragrant basmati or jasmine varieties are great choices for the American dinner table. Simply dish up a plate of cooked rice and spoon the cooked black beans and the variety of slow-simmered meats over the top. With collard greens and farofa on the side, to finish the dish, segment or slice fresh oranges for a sweet, juicy complement to this wonderful feast of black beans and rice.
Rice and beans have fed and nourished people throughout the world for many, many centuries. International flavors are cooked in different combinations for delightful variations on a simple dinner theme. Let history be the guide and your dinner table will offer a feast of flavors that start with a basic grain and a simple legume. Rice and beans are ancient foods for the contemporary palate.
1 pound dried black beans
6 cups water
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 pound beef round steak, cut into 1-inch pieces
4 to 8 ounces chorizo sausage (or smoked sausage), sliced
4 ounces pancetta (or bacon), diced
1 onion, peeled and chopped
1 stalk celery, chopped
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 bay leaf
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
Salt & pepper to taste
Serve with (see article for preparation and serving suggestions):
Cooked white rice
Cooked collard greens
Farofa (toasted manioc flour)
Fresh orange slices or segments
Hot chile sauce to taste
Sort through beans, discarding any shriveled beans or stones. Soak black beans in a deep pot with 6 cups of water for 3 hours. After soaking, bring water (with beans) to a boil, reduce heat to low and simmer for 1 1/2 hours. During the last quarter hour of cooking the beans, heat vegetable oil in a skillet and brown the round steak on all sides for 6 to 8 minutes; transfer round steak to simmering pot of beans. Add chorizo sausage, pancetta, onion, celery and garlic to the skillet and sauté for 5 minutes; transfer meats and vegetables to the simmering pot of beans. Add bay leaf, thyme and salt and pepper to taste to the pot of beans. Add additional water to the pot to cover the ingredients, as needed. Cook beans with the added meats, vegetables and seasonings for an additional 30 minutes or more, until beans are tender. Remove bay leaf (and discard) before serving the stew. Serve black beans and meats over cooked white rice with collard greens, farofa, orange slices and hot chile sauce on the side.