Caribbean Black Bean Soup

Many years ago for two days in a row I lunched on a vegetable soup made with pork, black beans, whole kernel corn and a variety of peppers. The final touch was lime juice which produced a bright fresh flavor. It was so good that I returned the second day just to have another bowl of the stuff. As I recall the waitress told me that it was a Cuban soup.

It was rather spicy, which may explain why it disappeared from the menu. Many cooks in northern Wisconsin think that they are being generous when they stir a tablespoon of chili powder into a gallon of tomato sauce and kidney beans. I have often thought of trying to create a soup that at least reminds me of that wonderful example of that Caribbean cuisine.

Having a few extra ears of sweet corn left over from dinner the night before and a pork hock languishing in the freezer, I decided to give it a shot. I began by reading about fifty recipes on the Web, most of which appeared to be nothing like I remembered. I then made a list of ingredients that I guessed had been in the soup I had eaten those many years ago and started work. The one ingredient I would never have included on my own was the molasses. In fact, I added it only after my wife and I tasted the soup just before I served it. We agreed that the molasses adds depth to the flavor without any sweetness.

I call this my Caribbean soup because it is simply one that reminds me of soups from the Bahamas, Jamaica and the Mayan Riviera. As one glance would tell you, I am not a native of the Caribbean, but I do love the foods developed by generations of cooks using ingredients common on the islands and coasts of that sea.

INGREDIENTS:

1 lb. dried black beans
1 smoked ham hock
About 2 qts. water
1 1/2 tsp. salt
1 large bay leaf
3 T olive oil
1 large yellow onion (2 cups chopped)
1 medium green bell pepper (1 cup chopped)
1/2 medium red bell pepper (1 cups chopped)
1 large or two small jalapeño peppers (about 1/3 cup chopped)
1 large carrot
1 rib of celery
3 large garlic cloves
1 1/2 – 2 cups whole kernel corn
1 T cumin
1/4 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
2 cups chicken broth or stock
1/2 tsp. hot sauce
1 T molasses
2 – 3 T lime juice

PROCEDURE:

Sort and rinse the beans the night before you plan on making the soup, removing any stones or other contaminants. Put the beans in a mixing bowl and cover them with an inch or more of cold water. Let them soak overnight.

Drain and rinse the beans until the water runs clear and put them and the pork hock into a soup pot or large Dutch oven. Add enough cold water to cover the beans and hock by an inch. Add the salt and bay leaf. Bring the pot to a boil, reduce the heat and simmer the beans and hock for about two hours.

Prepare the vegetables while the beans are cooking. Remove the dry outer layer from the onion and chop it into a quarter-inch dice. Set the onion aside in a small bowl.

Wash and stem the bell and jalapeño peppers. Remove the white membranes and seeds and chop the peppers into a quarter inch dice. Peel and clean a large carrot, cut it lengthwise into quarters and chop it into eighth-inch pieces. Clean and chop the celery into a quarter-inch dice. Remove the paper and stem ends from the garlic cloves and mince them. Set all these vegetables aside in a medium-sized bowl.

When the beans are tender and the meat is starting to fall off the bones of the hock, remove the hock from the broth. Put three tablespoons of olive oil into a skillet or frying pan over moderate heat and add the onions. Stir frequently while you cook the onions until they are translucent but not brown. Add the peppers, carrot, celery and garlic to the onion along with the cumin and black pepper and cook the vegetables about four minutes, stirring often.

Add two cups of chicken broth to the bean mixture and stir in the vegetables from the skillet along with the corn. Bring the soup to a boil, reduce the heat and simmer for thirty minutes, stirring occasionally. When the hock has cooled somewhat, remove the skin and fat and chop the meat into bite-sized pieces. Stir the meat into the simmering soup.

Taste and adjust the seasoning. You may want to add more salt, hot sauce or lime juice. Serve as is or over cooked rice in soup bowls.

NOTES: Since pork hocks vary in size and saltiness, you could start with only a teaspoon of salt to begin with and add more when you are adjusting the seasoning. You can use frozen or canned whole kernel corn. Kernels cut from left-over ears of corn on the cob also work just fine. You can substitute lime juice from a bottle, but I do think that freshly squeezed juice has more flavor.

If you like your soups spicier, add more hot sauce or just put the bottle on the table. Do the same with lime juice if you more than a hint of lime.