Habichuelas Blancas Guisadas
When I was little and knew I was going on a trip, the first thing I did was pack my bags. It could be days, weeks or even months away, but getting ready made me feel like I was already on the plane. Sadly, I’ve completely lost my pro-active packing impulses. Almost from the moment the itinerary hits my inbox, I start running through the list of things I need to do here before I’m allowed to go there. This weekend, after booking my Easter trip to Puerto Rico and facing dementor-like winter temperatures outside – the kind that make you feel like you’ll never be cheerful again – I felt a little of the old packing impulse when I decided to make this stew of habichuelas blancas.
Taken from a collection of Puerto Rican recipes my cousin had sent me a couple of months ago, it satisfied both my craving for a wintry stew and a little preview of spring. Defying my own resolution to stay off the ice and close to home, I ventured out to Essex Market on the lower east side for a few key ingredients, questioning my sanity the entire way there. I felt justified as soon as I saw the heaping bags of achiote seeds, newly packed white beans and fresh culantro. Of course, I could have easily substituted cilantro but I wasn’t in a compromising mood.
Having only recently discovered ají dulce, a staple of Puerto Rican sofrito and recaito, and wanted to use it again. Shaped like habaneros but mild and sweet, I love the fruity quality they add to the usual bell pepper and onion mix. I only regret not buying more. After a few online searches, I’ve found that culantro can be processed with a little olive oil then frozen and ají dulce can be seeded, chopped and frozen for later use as well. I’ll have to test it out to see if the flavor diminishes but at the very least it might tide me over till I can have the real thing.
Habichuelas Blancas Guisadas/White Bean Stew
Adapted from Cocine Conmigo by Dora R. De Romano. I found contradictory advice on whether or not the beans had to be soaked overnight. The original recipe didn’t require any soaking at all. I always prefer dried beans to canned so I wanted to see if these were a viable option for last minute stews. I didn’t soak them and they cooked only too quickly (less than 45 minutes). They would have been perfectly tender if I didn’t have to then cook them for an additional 20 or so minutes with the sofrito. I saved the first batch for for salads and boiled second batch of beans. This time I watched them closely and took them off the heat just before they’d completely cooked through.
The original recipe called for lard or oil flavored with achtiote or annatto seeds. I used this fast and simple method for making annatto oil. Anatto seeds can be found in specialty stores or Latin American markets. Just as a comparison, next time I’ll extra virgin olive oil the sofrito and add a big pinch of saffron to the stew instead. Chorizo or linguiça can also be added in place of or addition to the cooking ham.
½ pound habichuelas blancas (also known as judias blancas or navy, great northern, or white kidney beans)
2 tablespoons achiote/annatto oil
3 oz. cooking ham, cubed
1 green bell pepper, diced
3 ajíes dulces, seeded and diced
1 medium onion, diced
2 plum tomatoes, seeded and diced
¼ cup tomato puree
2 cloves of garlic, peeled and mashed to a paste
4 oz. calabaza or butternut squash, cubed
4 leaves culantro (cilantro)
½ tablespoon sea salt
Rinse beans well in cold water. In a large heavy pot, combine the beans and 1 ½ litres of water.* Bring to a boil then reduce heat to medium-low to maintain a gentle simmer and cover. Cover and cook checking regularly until almost tender but still firm, about 30 minutes. Remove from heat and drain all but 2 cups of the cooking water.
While the beans cook, combine chopped bell pepper, aji dulce, onion, tomatoes in a bowl and mix well. To make the sofrito, heat annatto oil in a large pan over medium heat. Add ham and saute until lightly browned, about 2-3 minutes. Add pepper mixture, tomato puree, mashed garlic sautee until peppers are soft, about 3-5 minutes.
Add the sofrito mixture to the beans. Add the calabaza, culantro and salt and return to a high simmer. Cover and cook over medium low heat until the beans are completely tender and the calabaza is cooked through, about 20-30 minutes depending on how thick you would like the soup to be. Adjust seasoning to taste and serve.
*The beans should be smooth and firm. They may shrivel immediately after adding the water but will plump up again after a few minutes of cooking.