by David W. Grossman

A few summers ago, I spent several weeks doing some medical research in a small town in Costa Rica called Tres Rios. As a vegan, I was initially somewhat disconcerted to discover that the Ticos had, for the most part, no concept of vegetarianism. However, a “casado” consisting of beans, rice, salad and fried plantain with a slab of beef or chicken on top, was universally available. Once I managed to convince the concerned locals that I really did not want the beef or chicken and that I honestly was happy without an egg or a piece of cheese instead, I was able to survive quite comfortably on the local cuisine.

Costa Rica is certainly not known for its fine dining, and the “casado”, while satisfying, was hardly imaginative. However, I was very lucky to find myself staying with a uniquely gifted woman known as Doña Elvia. Before retiring she and her husband had operated a renowned restaurant for 20 years in San José. Although she had never before cooked a vegetarian meal, Doña Elvia quickly and happily adapted her traditional dishes to our dietary needs. She was fascinated by the idea of healthier eating, whole foods and vegetarianism. During our seven weeks with Doña Elvia, we never lacked for variety, quality nor great-tasting food.

Just before our return to Canada, we spent a day in Doña Elvia’s kitchen, observing her make some of our favourite dishes and writing down the steps. I have tasted many versions of black bean soup, both in Costa Rica and in Canada, but have never encountered anything as sumptuous as Doña Elvia’s Sopa Negra. These are a few of my favourite recipes.

Frijoles Negros de Doña Elvia

Makes about 6 cups.

2 cups dried black beans
4 cloves garlic
2 tsp. dried oregano
1/2 bunch fresh cilantro (coriander leaves)
1 tsp. salt
12 cups cold water

Sort and wash beans, discarding shrivelled or cracked ones; soak overnight in cold water. Drain beans discarding the water, rinse under running tap water and place in a soup pot with 12 cups water. Peel garlic cloves (do not chop) and coarsely chop the cilantro (stems too). Add salt, garlic, oregano and cilantro to beans and bring to boil. Reduce heat, cover and simmer for 2 or more hours (preferrably 3-4 hours). Remove garlic cloves. Drain and serve (or use in Gallo Pinto, Sopa Negra, mashed in sandwiches etc. Save the cooling water if making Sopa Negra).

Gallo Pinto

Makes about 12 cups

1 medium vidalia or spanish onion, coarsely chopped
1/2 bunch fresh cilantro (coriander), diced
2-3 Tbsp. olive (or other) oil
6 cups Frijoles Negros de Doña Elvia
6 cups cooked rice
1/2 cup salsa, HP sauce (or similar sauce)
salt to taste
pepper to taste

In a large sauce pan sauté onion and cilantro in olive oil until soft (not brown) about 2 minutes. Add frijoles and mash gently to open up beans. Add salt, pepper, salsa and rice and mix well. Cook over low heat, stirring occasionally for 5-10 minutes. Serve with avocado slices.

Sopa Negra

Makes about 12 cups. Blender needed.

6 cups Frijoles Negros de Doña Elvia
1/2 bunch fresh cilantro (coriander leaves)
1 or 2 small vidalia or spanish onions
1-3 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
1-2 tsp. salt
2 tsp. curry powder
1 tsp. black pepper

Drain beans and place the cooking water into a large soup pot. Put beans and a bit of cooking liquid into a blender or food processor and liquify. Add the resulting bean paste to the pot. Add salt, pepper and curry powder and bring to boil. Cover, reduce heat and simmer (at least 15 minutes) until ready to serve. Meanwhile, chop onions very finely and wash and chop cilantro finely (including stems).

This soup does not keep well once remaining steps have been completed. The soup can be frozen or refrigerated by pausing here and storing the uncooked onions and cilantro in one container and the bean mixture in another. When ready to proceed, defrost the ingredients and continue with the directions.

Stovetop Method: Heat 2-3 Tbsp. oil in skillet and saute onions and cilantro briefly until soft (not brown, about 2 minutes). Set aside until ready to serve soup.

Microwave Method: Put chopped onions and cilantro in a microwave container and cover with 1-2 Tbsp oil. Cook on high power for 90 seconds. Set aside until ready to serve.

Bring soup to boil and add onion/cilantro mixture and stir for 30 seconds. Serve immediately, garnished with a sprig of fresh cilantro.

Options:
• Bring soup to boil and add chinese noodles or rice vermicelli and cook 2-3 minutes before adding the onion/cilantro mixture. • Bring soup to boil and add slices of fresh avocado and heat for 1- 2 minutes before adding the onion/cilantro mixture.

Salsa de Doña Elvia

Makes about 4 cups.

4 (2 green / 2 red) large tomatoes
2 large vidalia or spanish onions
1 bunch fresh cilantro (coriander leaves)
1 Tbsp. lemon or lime juice
2 Tbsp. vinegar

Chop tomatoes coarsely and the onions very finely. Wash and chop the cilantro very finely (including stems). Cover vegetable mixture with lemon juice and vinegar. Let stand 30 minutes before serving.

From the January 1997 issue of Lifelines. Last updated August 2005