Last updated on November 18th, 2016
After having a rough start to her workday, Ana called Rebeca, who was at home with Dad, for a bit of advice.
“Hi honey. I wonder if you can help me with something. What do you do when you’re having a bad day and you want to feel better?”
Rebeca immediately replied, “Um. Well, sometimes I eat.” (A kid after my own heart.) But she kept thinking and then added, “Oh, and music, listening to music makes me feel better.”
Ana was already grinning ear to ear. “Sweetie, those are great ideas!”
“Oooh, Oooh!” Rebeca interrupted. “Jumping up and down! Yeah, that always makes me feel good. Just jump up and down a lot!”
Ana relayed Rebeca’s advice to me while nearly crying; she was so struck by her little girl’s sweetness and honesty. It sounded like wise counsel, so after hanging up the phone, I loped over to the stereo in my socks and set my iPod to shuffle, hopeful that some jumping up and down to music might help my own dull day improve.
The first song that played was Arroz con Habichuela, a cha-cha song by the iconic Latin big band El Gran Combo. I downloaded it three summers ago when I was taking salsa dance lessons in a makeshift studio above the rumbling 190th Street subway station.
The teacher, a gold-toothed tough guy with Gene Kelly’s feet, counted out the beats and yelled “Cha, Cha, Cha” on every count of two as I, in my gold shoes, hammered out the steps on the waxy floor until thoroughly exhausted and soaked in sweat. That was a great summer. I loved the song, though I had never before paid attention to the lyrics.
The chorus repeats: Esto no es ensaladita light. Arroz con habichuela y vianda es lo que hay.
Translation: This is not a light salad. Beans and rice is the food, so there.
I suddenly remembered the beautiful little bag of black beans I received from my winter CSA share. Rebeca’s advice to listen to music and jump around was indeed elevating my mood, so I might as well follow her initial thought to eat. And El Gran Combo’s lyrics also made sense to me. Rice and beans are the real deal, not a light salad that will leave you empty or wanting. What will satisfy and fill your belly? Rice and beans. So there.
Not having an expertise in this area, I asked Felicia, the woman who runs the small staff cafeteria at work, and whose own Dominican rice and beans are legendary among the staff. Felicia has been making it all her life so her instructions were “a little of this, a touch of that,” and some “Niña, don’t forget to add the vinegar. Es màs importante.”
Truly capturing these kinds of recipes is always elusive, especially given the best version of rice and beans is one cooked by your own abuela. But from what I can best determine, here is a classic recipe for arroz con habichuelas from one very trusted source.
Dominican Style Rice and Beans
Total time: 1 hour 30 minutes plus overnight soaking
Makes 4 servings
- 1 cup dried red kidney beans, black beans, or white beans (Felicia likes Roma beans)
- olive oil
- 1 cup white or yellow rice
- 1/4 green pepper
- 1/2 onion
- 2 garlic cloves
- 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
- 3 oz. tomato paste
- 1 teaspoon allspice
- 1 large sprig of fresh cilantro
- Salt to taste
Rinse the dried beans in colander and soak overnight. Drain the beans and place them in a large pot. Add water until it is just an inch above the beans and bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to a simmer.
Meanwhile, heat 2-3 tablespoons olive oil in a saucepan. When the oil starts to sizzle, add the rice. Stir until the rice is lightly toasted (like risotto) and then add 2 1/2-3 cups of hot water and stir. Once it returns to a boil, reduce the heat and simmer for 20 minutes or until all the water has boiled off. Cover it to keep warm.
Thinly slice and chop the green pepper, onion and garlic. Lightly fry them in olive oil, just until the garlic starts to brown, and then add vinegar. (My research deems that the addition of vinegar is Felicia’s exclusively.)
After the beans have been simmering for an hour, add the vegetables to the beans, along with the tomato paste, allspice and hand-torn cilantro leaves. Another 30 minutes of simmering will allow the flavors to come together.
Season the soupy beans with salt to taste, and pour over rice with a ladle to serve.