Before I moved here, I knew that some common American foods were rare in France. Plain Cheerios, for example, can only be found in specialty import stores where they sell for €12. Same with boxed macaroni and cheese.
I’d read that kale was only recently re-introduced to France. While I love kale, I can live without it for a year. France has plenty of other delicious green vegetables.
But France doesn’t have black beans. And this is a problem.
I love black beans. I eat them almost every day,1 as does my daughter. For years of her life, most of her calories came from black beans and rice, lovingly prepared by her Honduran nanny.
In Los Angeles, black beans are ubiquitous. Any given supermarket will offer six brands of canned beans in a variety of sodium levels. My favorite is from Whole Foods, where you get a discount when you buy a case of 24. That’s every month for us.
So our first week in Paris, we went looking for black beans.
The stereotype of France is that it’s a bunch of tiny little shops. A butcher here, a baker there. And while those definitely exist, there are also a ton of supermarkets. There are at least ten in easy walking distance of our apartment, each of them bigger than your average Trader Joe’s.
Inside you’ll find aisles of candy and cookies, including American brands like Oreos. Head over to the refrigerator case to marvel at more varieties of yogurt than anyone could ever sample. In one corner, you’ll find Chinese and Thai foods. Near the pasta and rice, you’ll find quinoa grown in Ethiopia.
But you won’t find black beans.
Ultimately, we were able to find dried black beans (haricots noir) at two stores: a Peruvian market in the 15th, and a chain of organic groceries called Bio c’Bon. They cost about €4 per pound — considerably more than the U.S., but hardly a deal-breaker.
Dried black beans aren’t nearly as convenient as canned, but it’s not that much work to cook them. Just follow any recipe you find online or, if you want maximum flavor with minimum effort, invest in a pressure cooker.
Back in Los Angeles, we use an Instant Pot IP-DUO50. I was happy to find Amazon has a 220-volt version for Europe and the UK. They look like crock pots or rice cookers, but with lids that lock on tight. Pressure cookers seem intimidating, but trust me, they’re easy.
And suddenly, it’s a food blog
Here’s my recipe for making a big batch of black beans in a pressure cooker:
- Dump one pound of dried beans out on a tray, or a wide bowl. Pick through them, tossing out anything that doesn’t look like a perfect black bean. Sometimes tiny stones end up in the bag. I don’t know why, but it happens. So don’t skip this step. It takes two minutes. (You may find beans in 500 gram bags. That’s about a pound. It works out the same.)
- Rinse them in a bowl or a colander. Can’t hurt. Plus it makes them look all glossy rather than dry and dusty.
- Dump the beans in the cooker. Add one small yellow onion, cut in half. (Or half of a larger onion.) Add 2 tablespoons of olive oil and 3/4ths of a teaspoon of salt. This seems like too little salt, but really, it’s fine. Add one dried bay leaf. (They’re called “laurel” in French, which is awesome.) Then add six cups of water. That’s 1.5 liters.
- Attach the lid and turn on the machine. Set the timer for 37 minutes. Let it start. The little valve in back should be set for “pressure” not “vent.”
- Walk away. Return in about an hour for delicious black beans.
You don’t need to release the pressure valve. It will come back to normal by itself, at which point the lid will unlock. The beans inside will be hot and steamy, so keep your face away when you first open it.
With a spoon, retrieve and discard the onion and bay leaf. You’re done.
This recipe produces way too many black beans to eat at once. Fortunately, they freeze well. And they’re significantly tastier than even the best canned black beans.
You American monster
I suspect that about ten paragraphs back, several readers rolled their eyes and asked, “Why don’t you just eat something else, something French?” or “Why live in a foreign country if you’re just going to make it like Los Angeles?”
These people have a point. I suspect they also don’t have kids.
Also, living abroad is about cultural immersion, not assimilation. If we insisted immigrants only eat the dominant foods of the U.S., we wouldn’t have Tex-Mex or pizza or Chinese take-out, all things we now take for granted.
Black beans are the food of my So-Cal culture. It’s great to have them back.
In my next installment, I’ll be teaching you how to make Cheerios from scratch.2