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Before I knew much about cooking, one of the most reliable meals I knew how to make was a simple black bean soup with a decidedly Latin flair. The soup used a number of ready-made ingredients – canned beans, frozen corn – that produces a very satisfying result that I still make from time to time when I’m wanting a hearty meal without putting in much effort. I frequently served it over rice, enjoying the dish immensely, but I always felt like it was a blasphemous way to eat black beans and rice.

When I first made a recipe for black beans and rice, I was a little disappointed – the dish was a little dry, and I thought that the flavors didn’t exactly come together. Many of the recipes I found involved cooking beans and rice in the same pot for long periods of time. While I can say the method produced beautiful, purple grains of rice, the overall flavor wasn’t very vibrant. Moreover, it had the problem that lots of rice dishes have in that every bite tended to taste exactly the same (I’m looking your way, sole-vegetarian-option-at-a-restaurant vegetable risotto). I tried making it a few times, finally deciding that it perhaps just wasn’t a dish I liked.

It was when looking through Gran Cocina Latina, Maricel Presilla’s encyclopedic tome of Latin cooking, that I discovered that the black bean soup I had eaten for years wasn’t quite so blasphemous, as Havana black bean soup is often served over rice. The key difference between the book’s recipe and my recipe was the use of a sofrito, a common component of Spanish cuisine that exists in various forms throughout Latin America and, in Cuban cuisine, is marked by the inclusion of bell peppers.

Armed with knowledge about the dish’s Spanish influences, I worked to refine the recipe, adding smoked paprika to the sofrito to add extra savory notes, grinding the aromatics into a paste rather than just chopping them, and replacing the vinegar with lime juice. On my first taste of the finished dish, I knew I had produced the black beans and rice I’d been searching for.

black bean soup in Dutch oven

You can eat this soup as is or with rice, though keep in mind that the rice allows you to have more leftovers, and the soup definitely improves the next day.

black bean soup with rice

Adapted from Gran Cocina Latina by Maricel E. Presilla.

This recipe calls for making a spice paste in a mortar and pestle, but you can always make it in a food processor if you prefer. If you’re serving the soup with rice, start the rice once you add the sofrito to the pot of beans.

for the beans

  • 1 pound dry black beans, rinsed and picked over
  • 10 cups water
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 1 teaspoon dry oregano, preferably Mexican
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • ½ torn bay leaf
  • 1 whole scallion, ends trimmed

for the sofrito

  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 teaspoon smoked paprika
  • 2 small bell peppers, minced
  • 1 scallion, trimmed and chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • 1 chipotle in adobo sauce
  • ½ teaspoon dry oregano, preferably Mexican
  • 1 large handful cilantro stems and leaves, roughly chopped
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 tablespoon ground cumin

finishing the dish

  • juice of 1 lime
  • 2 scallions, trimmed and chopped
  • 1 large handful cilantro leaves

In a large pot or dutch oven, combine beans, water, salt, dry oregano, olive oil, bay leaf, and scallion and set over medium-high heat. Bring to a vigorous boil for five minutes. Reduce heat to medium-low, cover, and maintain a generous simmer for one hour. After an hour has past, ladle out a cup of beans and broth into a cup and mash with a bean masher or fork. Return lid to beans and maintain a light simmer.

In a small pan, combine olive oil and smoked paprika and heat over medium-low for ten minutes. While the paprika cooks, combine salt, scallion, garlic, chipotle, dry oregano, cumin, and cilantro stems in a mortar and pestle and work the mixture into a chunky paste. Increase heat of the pan to medium high and add the paste, cooking for one minute while stirring continuously. Add the bell peppers and continue to cook, stirring every now and then, for five minutes. Reduce heat to low and add the mashed beans and liquid to the pot. Cook for a few minutes, stirring every now and then. Remove sofrito from heat and set aside.

Remove the lid from the beans and check beans for doneness. If the beans are still hard, cover and continue simmering, checking every thirty minutes. If they’re soft, remove the scallion and bay leaf from the pot and add the sofrito mixture. Turn heat up to medium to maintain a simmer. Continue to simmer for twenty minutes, stirring every now and then. Remove from heat, add lime juice and scallions, and salt to taste. Let rest for five minutes.

Serve soup over rice, topping each bowl with cilantro.