For documentarian and cookbook author Von Diaz, these smoky simmered beans capture all the flavors of her Puerto Rican childhood—and a lifetime of exploration in the kitchen.

By Von Diaz
February 19, 2021
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As a child, I hated rice and beans. This was incredibly stressful for my parents, because in places like Puerto Rico, where I was born, rice and beans are religion. Breakfast, lunch, dinner—arroz con habichuelas or rice and beans are an integral part of every meal.  

Eventually, after much trial and error, my young parents discovered that I didn't actually hate rice and beans—the problem was the ratio. I wanted the inverse of lo típico or what was expected—I wanted a bowl of beans, with a scoop of rice on it, because rice bored me, but beans I loved. 

My family typically cooked intensely flavorful red kidney beans, seasoned with sofrito, sazón, and tomato sauce, with added chopped potatoes and whole green pimento-stuffed olives. It's a powerful combination, one that turns a simple bowl of beans into a full meal—crucial for communities making do with limited resources. 

I started making beans for my family as a teenager. There was a time when starting the dinner beans was my after-school chore; ideally they'd be simmering on the stove when my dad got home from work. And I prepared them as the women in my life—my grandmother, mother, and stepmother—instructed me to. I stuck to the script, because, again, beans are religion.

And yet, I'm a consummate wanderer, due in large part to being a military kid, and over time I experienced different kinds of beans that made me wonder if the version I grew up cooking really was the best. Like much of Puerto Rican cuisine, the recipe I was most accustomed to seemed rooted in outdated tradition and shelf-stable ingredients that grew out of economic necessity and their capacity to withstand hurricanes. 

Credit: Anna Stockwell

But when my family was stationed in Europe, I discovered Tuscan-style white beans, prepared simply with an Italian soffritto—so similar in concept to a Puerto Rican sofrito—along with fresh herbs, white wine, and chicken broth. Later, as a young, hippy college student (suddenly turned vegetarian), I discovered lentils, notably red lentils cooked down with coconut milk into a velvety dal. Mexican frijoles charros, or cowboy beans, cooked with bacon and broth, caught my attention. Southern-style lima beans, sometimes cooked with bits of ham and cream, are succulent and elegant—a shift from the subsistence preparation I grew up with. And then Cuban black beans, inky, laced with oregano and often brightened with red-wine vinegar, shifted my perspective once again. 

As I began cooking my way across legumes, I sought ways to accent the unique flavors of each bean, and bring out its innate creaminess. Over time I borrowed from these other cultures, and simplified my family's recipe. Tomato sauce was the first to go, then olives, then potatoes. Eventually I landed on these Tuscan-Mexican-Southern inspired sofrito-laced beans that are so much simpler, but no less satisfying—and delicious served with Brazilian-style greens.

These days, I prepare my version of beans with sofrito in a cast-iron skillet over a woodfire grill in my backyard in Durham, North Carolina—a long way from the nonstick pots and electric stoves in the kitchens of my youth. The secret to this recipe is complexity couched in simplicity. The bacon fat accentuates the beans' creaminess, sofrito adds dynamism, and the brothstock gives it balance. And because sofrito is the cornerstone of Puerto Rican flavor, they still transport me to my earliest memories of loving beans. 

Get the Recipe: Smoky Simmered Beans with Sofrito