Friday, January 28, 2011

A Warm Spot for Spicy Black Bean Chili

Is there a dish more aptly named than chili? I mean on a morning when the snow banks along the walkway to the front door are up to your hips and you can practically see your breath inside the house, and more than anything you want something that explodes with heat the second you taste it, you know it's a chili day. Even better, it was a Seacoast Growers' Winter Market day. That meant I could buy some black beans that Jean Jennings of Meadow's Mirth Farm had grown and dried last season and make my favorite chili recipe, the Black Bean Chili from Cafe Beaujolais.

I'd first sampled this dish in the late '80's at Margaret J. Fox's restaurant of the same name in Mendocino, California, after a breathtaking, but harrowing drive up the coast from San Francisco. Mendocino bills itself as a perfect replica of a quaint little New England town, though I might point out that the ocean is on the wrong side. But it was a beautiful place to relax for a couple of days, (I stayed at the inn that was the setting for the movie, Same Time, Next Year), and I was very pleased to take a number of meals at the sunny yellow cottage that was home to this illustrious cafe. (In the 70's and 80's, Margaret J. Fox was almost as famous in the Northern California culinary scene as Alice Waters!)
To me, what makes this recipe so special is the seasonings, which include cayenne pepper and paprika, as well as a blend of cumin seed and dried oregano, basil, rosemary, and thyme that have been heated in the oven for 10 minutes or so. To add a little smokey zip, I chopped up a couple of chipotle chiles en adobo and added them, with a little of their sauce, to the pot.

You may think dried beans are dried beans, but the truth is that the fresher the beans, the more flavorful they are -- and the faster they cook. I was looking forward to sampling Jean's beans, and can happily report I was not disappointed.

Don't try to substitute canned beans here -- I think the texture would be all wrong. Plus the dried turtle beans don't need to be soaked for this recipe and since they're really quite small in size, they were ready to go after just an hour and three-quarters of cooking -- it's also a nice way to heat up the kitchen on a col, cold day.

To serve, put some cheese in a bowl and scoop in the chili and top with chopped scallions, more cheese, and a little cilantro -- the latter is optional. One note of warning: this is a spicy chili -- if you don't like the heat, well maybe, you should stay out of the kitchen. 

Black Bean Chili
from Cafe Beaujolais by Margaret Fox
(Recipe originated at Greens in San Francisco)

4 cups dry black beans
3 cups  crushed whole tomatoes
2 large finely chopped yellow onions
1 1/2 cups finely chopped green bell peppers (I used red because I like the color contrast)
1/2 cup olive oil
2 tablespoons cumin seeds
2 tablespoons dried oregano (You can also try to approximate the famous Beaujolais Blend by substituting a mixture of dried basil, rosemary, and thyme for one of the tablespoons of oregano.)
1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 1/2 tablespoons paprika
1/2 cup finely chopped jalapeño chiles (2 large jalapeños) (Canned are okay -- I also added a couple of chopped chipotle chiles en adobo.)
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 pound Monterey Jack or cheddar cheese, grated
2/3 cup sour cream
1/2 cup finely chopped green onions
8 sprigs or 1/4 cup chopped cilantro

1. Sort through the beans; discard the funky ones and any small pebbles. Rinse well. Place the beans in a large pot and cover with water by several inches. Cover and bring to a boil.

2. Reduce the heat and cook for about 1 3/4 hours, or until tender. You'll need to add more water if you start to see the beans. Water should always cover the beans, so add more if the beans start to peek through.

3.When the beans are cooked, strain, reserving 1 cup of the cooking water and adding it back to the beans.

3. Heat the oven to 325 degrees. Toast the cumin seeds and oregano in a small pan until the fragrance is toasty, about 10 minutes.

4. Sauté the onions, bell peppers, and garlic in the oil over medium-high heat with the toasted cumin seeds and herbs, cayenne pepper, paprika and salt until the onions are soft, about 10 minutes. Add the tomatoes and chiles. Add this mixture to the beans and stir well. Add additional seasoning to taste.

5. To serve, place about one-quarter cup grated cheese in a warmed bowl, add a generous cup of beans, and dollop with a spoonful of sour cream. Sprinkle with 1 tablespoon green onions, a little more cheese, and the cilantro.


  1. Oh, you've taken me back to my years in Berkeley! Since I didn't have a car then, I never got the chance to eat at Cafe Beaujolais. We would, though, save up our money to eat at the upstairs cafe at Chez Panisse, and still remember the simple but life-changing food I had there...

  2. We are going to try some recipes for "Friday Night Chili" after we have finished our project before our big party. This one will be the first one we try. I know what you mean about thinking that dried beans are dried beans. I used to feel the same way about potatoes. But one year my parents grew potatoes in their garden and my mom's potato salad (one of her specialties) never tasted so good. I couldn't believe that potatoes could taste this different just out of the garden.

  3. Thanks for posting this. It made a big difference to be able to find the recipe online. My mother recently died. As part of cleaning her things, I took her binders of recipes that she'd accumulated from magazines, newspapers, emails from family, etc.. I've been cooking from the binders since then. I saw Margaret Fox's black bean chili recipe and was excited to make it today. It wasn't until I started to cook that I realized my mom hadn't pasted the whole recipe in the binder: she'd been focused on a different dish on the same page! Anyway, I found this post and was able to use it write down the missing steps for the ingredients (they are now on a post-it note in the binder. I can't bring myself to write on the pages themselves yet). So thanks for putting this recipe online seven years ago!