Friday, May 1, 2009

Lagrimas Negras and Perfect Cuban Black Beans

Today, on this date, I would normally be in Miami, en route to Havana. Every year for the last eight years, I've been teaching a film intensive at the EICTV during the week of my father's yarzteit, quietly mourning and celebrating at the same time, in one of the places where I feel most at home and most fulfilled. This year, for the first time, I cancelled my trip. There's a little too much going on in my life and not enough time to get everything done. I'll go to Cuba in November instead. It was the right decision, but I'm having a momentarily deep pang of regret nonetheless. I wasn't even aware of it, until I suddenly found myself loading up the pressure cooker with black beans this morning, and humming Lagrimas Negras under my breath. When I realized what I was doing, I burst into a chuckle. (Lord only knows what Bill thinks I'm doing, laughing by myself in the kitchen.)

Cuba is changing, of course, in unforeseeable ways, and people constantly ask me what I think will happen next. For me, the biggest changes have not involved the new administrations or the changing travel restrictions or the rising exchange rate of the dollar. The biggest change in this last period of time has been the dissolution of my Cuban family, as I have watched my closest friends in Havana (one of the happiest couples I have ever known) go through a bitter divorce and estrangement. Just last month one of them moved to Italy, taking their son Marcel with her, after several astonishing years and finally reaching the point of no-turning-back.

Now, I have many friends in Cuba, and I am always very happy to see them when I arrive, but my family, that beautiful and bright little jewel in La Vibora, is gone forever, and even now I mourn that loss.

This first week in May is Marcel's birthday, and this will be the first year out of his seven years of life that I am not there to celebrate with them. The houses have been sold, the parents have remarried, and I am left wondering what it means to still have these addresses in my head, ready to direct taxi drivers through the hills of La Vibora and Santo Suarez to homes that no longer exist: Calle Heredia, entre Infante y O'Farril. Estrada Palma entre Goicuria y Juan Delgado. These phones numbers I've known by heart for years - my first call when I land and the last before my plane takes off. The number I repeatedly ask the operator to dial during any kind of personal transition, so I can talk to my beloved sister: "cuarenta, ochenta, setenta y siete, por favor."

What will they eat in Padua on Marcel's birthday this year, I wonder. Will his father call from Cuba during the party? Will I call from New York, I, his auntie, who suggested that they name him Marcel after Duchamp? Will they sing Happy Birthday to him in Italian? I'll visit them all separately in Italy and in Cuba, of course, and life will go on. Of course, I know that. Of course. But how I miss that family and that home where I spent so very many happy hours talking, laughing, eating and feeling loved. I will always miss them as they were, that inimitable little constellation of stars.

I hope Marcel's parents find it in their hearts to forgive each other someday, as in the words of the bolero -- the one every Cuban knows how to sing, the one about leaving:

Aunque tu me has dejado en el abandono
aunque ya se han muerto todas mis ilusiones.

En vez de despedirme
con justo encono
en mis sueños te colmo
en mis sueños te colmo
de bendiciones.

Even though you have left me abandoned
even though all my hopes have died
instead of saying goodbye
with justified rage,
in my dreams I shower you
in my dreams I shower you with blessings.

Perfect Cuban Black Beans
1 pound dried black beans
8 cups water
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 pieces smoked pork neck bones or 1 large ham hock
2 bay leaves

1 1/2 cups chopped onion
1 1/2 cups chopped green bell pepper
3 cloves garlic, peeled, and mashed with 1 teaspoon salt and 1/2 teaspoon black peppercorns
Olive oil for sautéing
(OR 1 jar of prepared sofrito instead of the previous 4 ingredients)

1 teaspoon oregano
1 teaspoon ground cumin
3 tablespoons vinegar
1 clove of garlic mashed to a paste (or garlic powder, to taste)
1/2 cup dry red wine (optional)
1 teaspoon sugar (optional)
olive oil (optional)
chopped cilantro and white onion for garnish (optional)

Combine dry beans with water, olives oil, bay leaves and pork bones in a 4 - 6 quart pressure cooker. Cook at high pressure for 22 minutes and let the pressure release naturally. Ideally, leave time for the beans to cool in the liquid. If there isn't time for this step, it is probably better to cook the beans at high pressure for 24 or 25 minutes instead of 22 minutes at the outset.

Meanwhile, prepare the sofrito if making it from scratch: chop onion and green pepper. Mash the garlic with salt and peppercorns in a mortar and pestle. Sauté the onions and green pepper in olive oil until the onions are translucent. Add mashed garlic and sauté for another minute or so.

When the beans have cooled slightly, remove the pork neck bones. Remove any edible meat from the bones. Discard the bones and chop the meat up finely, adding it back to the pot along with the sofrito, oregano, cumin, vinegar, and wine. Cover and simmer over low heat for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. Stir in the finely mashed garlic clove or garlic powder, to taste.

Thicken the beans by taking about 1 cup of beans and mashing them to make a thick paste. Mix the mashed beans back into the pot. Add additional salt and pepper to taste.

Stir in the sugar; then drizzle a couple of tablespoons of olive oil over the beans. Immediately cover the pot, remove from heat, and let stand for 10 minutes. Serve the black beans over white rice, garnished with cilantro and chopped white onions.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Ruthie,

    I just wanted to let you know that I love this recipe. I have it bookmarked and have returned to it many times. Today I pulled it up as I was making my grocery list for mother's day dinner and I actually READ the post above the recipe. It moved me to tears.

    I hope your family has found peace and that you and Bill are happy! Thank you for sharing this recipe - know that some stranger, somewhere in the world thinks of you and yours fondly every time she makes your perfect Cuban black beans.