"I would love to have your mom's cooking at my birthday," my partner, Rob, said to me last fall. He always loved certain dishes that she made, especially her beans and rice. My mother had passed away earlier that year, in June. This would be the first time cooking her recipes without her.I grew up in Cuba with my mom's cooking. Later, when we lived in the U.S., we would cook together whenever she visited from Florida. But neither of us wrote anything down. Nevertheless, I took the challenge on.There was a freshness in my mom's cooking. It was homely and not overly fussy. Her black beans are a perfect example. They begin by simply cooking dried black beans with onion, green pepper, and bay leaf in a pressure cooker, which makes quick work of dried beans, infusing them with flavor while turning them very tender and soft. She would then make sofrito: garlic, onions, and green pepper gently cooked for a long time in olive oil. She would add the sofrito to the beans, which enriched the cooking liquid and gave them a mellow flavor that didn't hit you over the head and really went well with everything else she served them with—the toasted rice
, the sweet fried plantains
, the boiled yuca
, and the tender shredded beef of the ropa vieja
. She served an achingly sweet caramel flan
for dessert. And for me, all of these things together made the perfect meal.And so I did cook my mother's recipes for 30 people on Rob's birthday. I’ve made a career out of being a professional food photographer, and when I was making her recipes, there was a moment when I thought, Let me add the yellow and red peppers instead of the green, for color.
But you know what? That's not the food that I remember. I started embracing the brown colors and tones and the earthy richness of each element. I wanted the beans to look and taste as they did when I grew up eating them. And so they did, and the meal was a huge success and a perfect tribute to her.I hope you enjoy this dish as much as I still do. A pressure cooker speeds everything up, but is not essential. If you use a regular heavy pot, soak the beans overnight, then simmer until nearly tender before adding the onion and pepper mixture.