Vegetable Dinners: Black Bean Cakes, and notes on cornmeal


The famous nutritionist Marion Nestle once claimed that she could tell anyone in a sentence how to improve their health and nutritional status: “Eat less, move more, eat more fruits and vegetables.” Around my house we love to fill our plates with vegetables, so no problem there, but lately I’ve been experimenting with ways to add more dried beans to our diet. This coincides with my aquisition of a solar oven, but in this recipe the beans don’t even have to be cooked. You can soak them for 24 hours, or you can use drained cooked black beans if you have some handy. These patties make a substantial main course and are a good main dish for occasions when you have vegetarians and/or vegans over for dinner.

Black Bean Cakes

Start with one cup dried black beans. Soak in a quart of soft or filtered water at room temperature for 24 hours. If you can’t give them the full soaking time, use 2 cups of cooked drained black beans instead.
About a cup of fine cornmeal (I like finely ground blue cornmeal, which helps keep the color dark)
1 small bunch each of epazote and cilantro, or 1 large bunch cilantro
1 teaspoon lightly roasted ground cumin
2 medium or three small shallots, very finely chopped
2 limes, one juiced, one cut in wedges or slices
salt to taste
1 teaspoon ground chipotle chiles
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
about half a cup of olive oil

Drain the soaked beans very thoroughly. They should now be about 2 cups in volume. If using cooked beans, drain very thoroughly. Whichever kind of beans you are using, let them sit in the strainer for at least half an hour, because you want them as dry as you can get them. Now grind them finely in a food processor. MIx in a small handful of chopped epazote or, if you couldn’t find epazote, a large handful of chopped cilantro. Mix in the chopped shallots, cumin, chipotle, the juice of one lime, and about half a teaspoon of salt, and taste for salt. Add more if needed to make the mixture taste properly seasoned. Make it a little tiny bit on the salty side, because you are still going to add more dry ingredients. Heat about a quarter cup of olive oil in a skillet over medium heat. When almost ready to cook, process in half a cup of cornmeal mixed with the baking powder. Check the consistency; if it’s possible to mold it into cakes, you’re ready to go. Otherwise, add more cornmeal until it can be molded (with difficulty) but is still very soft. Sprinkle cornmeal on a piece of waxed paper and scoop out heaping tablespoonfuls of the mixture onto the paper. When the oil is good and hot, carefully lay the cakes in the hot oil, patting a little with fingers or a spatula to make them no more than 1/2 inch in diameter. Be careful, they’re fragile, but you don’t want to add more cornmeal unless strictly necessary because they can get dry and tough if you add too much. You can also skip the waxed-paper step and spoon the mixture directly into the hot skillet, spreading it out with the back of a damp spoon to make the cakes about 3/8″ thick. Let them sizzle at least 3-4 minutes, then when you’re sure that a good brown crust has formed on the bottom side to hold them together, carefully turn with a narrow spatula and cook on the other side until done. You can keep them warm in a 200 degree oven while you fry the second batch. The main “secrets” are to keep the dough on the moist and fragile side, get the oil hot enough, don’t omit the baking powder because it does improve the texture, and wield your spatula with caution to turn them without breaking the cakes around them. .

Once cooked, you can decide how to serve them. They are fine naked on a warmed platter, garnished with a large handful of cilantro leaves and wedges of lime as shown above. A squeeze of the fresh lime juice is important to the flavor, in my opinion, and I pick up a few cilantro leaves to add to each bite. My favorite garnish (vegetarian but not vegan) is some very good olive oil mayonnaise with a little extra lime juice and a lot of chopped cilantro stirred in. They can also be served with warmed small corn tortillas and guacamole, and a little heap of crumbled cotija cheese on top is a delicious tangy addition; the vegans at the table can just omit it.

The beans and blue cornmeal are both full of antioxidants, blue cornmeal is a whole-grain product, and beans have beneficial phytosterols as well as lots of fiber and other desirable nutritional factors. But I only eat things that taste good, and these cakes taste good.

Notes on cornmeal: a lot of cornmeal on the market is very uneven in grind, and any meal containing large particles will leave unpleasant hard fragments in your finished cakes. I buy a blue cornmeal made locally and ground to flour fineness. If you buy yours at the store, I suggest sifting it to get the largest chunks out, or whir it in the blender for a few minutes to grind it more finely. I would avoid the Bob’s Red Mill “medium grind” cornmeal: it seems to be a mix of the company’s fine grind and polenta grind, and can leave tooth-cracking particles in your bean cakes or cornbread. Seek out a better product.

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