Food for Cold Nights | Civil Eats

Food for Cold Nights


In case you live somewhere where the cold doesn’t rattle your bones, we’re in the dead of winter.  Even if you live in sunny San Diego or Key West, we all are simultaneously experiencing the shortest days of the year.  It is a time of transition, a pause, as the sun just starts to stay a little longer every day and bring warmth and light to our days once again.

In traditional Chinese culture, this has been a time of retreat and introspection.  Between now and the Lunar New Year coming up on January 26, tradition advises everyone to stay at home as much as possible, and to use slow cooking methods when preparing your food.  In early European cultures, the traditional Solstice feast at the end of December allowed the entire community to come together to share foods that could be eaten over several days or even weeks – like the infamous fruitcake of today.

Cooking large pots of soups and stews to eat over several days minimizes the amount of work you need to devote to cooking during this time of year, and the slow cooking style also maximizes the flavors of root vegetables and preserved and dried foods that are the traditional mainstay of the winter months before Spring brings its new bounty.

Here in modern times, this winter-style cooking is a great way to save energy at a time when less is naturally available. Sure, we’ve become accustomed to unlimited and year-round fossil fuel energy, but as that becomes scarcer over the years we’re going to have to marry seasonal energy use as part of our sustainable eating habits.

This simple black bean stew is a marriage of both Eastern and Western traditions.  The black beans and the Mexican oregano (with a similar taste but not related to the European variety) come from the Americas, the sesame seeds and sesame oil originated in India before migrating to China, and the red chili paste is a South Asian favorite.

I love to use a variety of root vegetables in this soup – use what you find at your local market.  Burdock root is an often overlooked root in Western cuisine, and provides an earthly, slightly bitter tone that is particularly valued in Chinese medicine for its purifying properties.  Combined with a combination of parsnips, carrots, and perhaps beets the root vegetables provide an earthy counterpoint to the sweetness of the sesame in this stew.

East-West Black Bean Stew

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1 quart black beans, sorted and washed
1 large yellow onion, diced
2 cups mixed root vegetables:  burdock, parsnip, carrot, beets, cleaned, trimmed and diced into ¼ inch pieces
3 Tbs Mexican oregano
4 cloves fresh garlic, crushed
1 Tbs chili powder
¼ cup soy sauce
2 Tbs sesame oil
¼ cup toasted black sesame seeds (white sesame seeds may be substituted)
1 Tbs red chili paste
2 Tbs local honey
Salt to taste
Olive oil
2 + quarts vegetable stock

Soak the black beans overnight in 2 quarts of water.

In a Dutch oven or stockpot sauté the onions in olive oil until they are clear.  Add the root vegetables, the garlic, the chili powder, the sesame seeds and the sesame oil.  Sauté gently for about 5 minutes.

Add the stock, the rinsed black beans, and the soy sauce and bring to a gentle simmer.  Cover and cook for 2 hours, checking occasionally to add more stock or water as needed (if the stew is sticking to the bottom of the pot).  The stew is done when the black beans are soft.  Just before service, add the honey, the chili paste, and salt to taste.

Serve with rice or perhaps some warm bread.

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Chef / Ecologist Aaron French is the Environment Editor at Civil Eats. He is the chef of The Sunny Side Cafe and is writing his first book "The Bay Area Homegrown Cookbook" (Voyageur Press, 2011). He has a Masters in Ecology and is currently working toward his MBA at UC Berkeley, with a focus on sustainable business practices. Read more >

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  1. My mother slow cooks. Most Sundays she prepares a large pot of soup and portions it for lunches during the week. Recently, I ate/ drank a bowl of her black bean soup. Earthy, creamy, delicious.
  2. pcrossfield
    I made this stew last night, and it was delicious! Thanks, Aaron for the great recipe.
  3. Emily H.
    Indeed, great recipe! We made this for dinner tonight and loved it. I would never have thought these ingredients could be so harmonious together; thanks for the inspiration.

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