Habichuelas con Dulce: Caribbean Sweetness That’s Here to Stay

Habichuelas con Dulce or sweet creamed beans

Served the traditional Dominican way, with casabe or yuca bread and milk cookies

Habichuelas con dulce was the dish that had my heart when I left home almost two decades ago. And then I found it — or rather it found me. Right smack in the middle of Washington Heights, from a street vendor who sold it in plastic containers for a dollar. It was an honest way to flee the hardness of the city, if only for a few spoonfuls, and travel to a place where breezes blew salty and flowers shone bright. Right around the beginning of Lent this year, I thought of it again. My Dominican tribe was ready to indulge and secretly fulfill my wish.

Within the tribe was Argentina Diaz, a self-taught cook who began tinkering with the stove by the time she was eight years old. Born in Santiago, Dominican Republic in the late 1950s, she was part of the Dominican exodus who left the island and made its way to New York City after Trujillo’s dictatorship fell in the early 1960s. Her mother ran restaurants in Queens and she learned the secrets of Caribbean creole cooking early on. Today, after a life-long career in finance and still in her 50s, she’s retired and living in a light-filled two-bedroom apartment she shares with a roommate on the second story of a single family home in Ozone Park, Queens.

I took refuge in her light-filled corner kitchen on a bitterly cold February morning as she crammed in decades worth of wisdom into four fruitful hours of smashing, stirring, and transforming a few humble ingredients into something exquisite. After snacking on empanadas, mangú and queso frito from a nearby Dominican joint, we began. “You have to make sure the beans are shiny,” she said, examining a bag filled with red kidney beans, “they are the youngest and freshest tasting.”

We smashed beans that had been previously softened and cooled using our hands (as if pressing grapes). What we want is the meat of the bean, Diaz explained, the skin is bitter. We strained the beans and redid the process by adding water and smashing them once again. What resulted was a velvety cream that was set to boil on the stove.

We added cinnamon, cloves, coconut milk, whole milk, brown sugar, and salt which we stirred until the mixture turned cloudy and about to bubble. Then we lowered the heat and continued stirring, never once leaving its side so it didn’t boil over. “This is not something you can do while you multi-task,” Diaz said, stirring patiently and raising the spoon every so often to examine the texture of the mixture.

“Everything has to marry,” she said. Throughout the next hour, we tasted and adjusted the flavor and experienced the magical alchemy of fire. The traces of bean flavor were replaced by rich caramelized coconut. We added another teaspoon of salt, another tablespoon of sugar, which according to Diaz stabilizes the flavor. The aromatics began to open and wafted through the air, creating a blanket of warm spices that embraced us as we laughed over racy jokes and tales of upcoming travel plans.

To finish, we added the cooked sweet potatoes, evaporated milk, and raisins and reveled in the shared wisdom we now possessed from someone who has been cooking for almost half a century—lucky us.

Ingredients

1 bag 16 oz. Goya red kidney beans

2 white sweet potatoes

3 cinnamon sticks

1 teaspoon of whole cloves

1 can of coconut milk (unsweetened) or make your own from a young coconut

2 boxes of raisins

2 cups of whole milk

1 ¾ cup of brown sugar

1/8 teaspoon of salt

1 can evaporated milk

Brown sugar

Vanilla extract

 

Directions

Boil beans in 6 cups of water until very soft, about 2 ½ hours

Peel and cut sweet potato into chunks. Boil with 1 tablespoon of dark sugar until potatoes are soft about 30 – 45 minutes. Set aside.

Soak raisins in water. Set aside.

Let beans cool. Smash the beans with your hands. Strain the beans and redo the process by adding water and smashing them again. Discard bean shell.

Add cinnamon, cloves, coconut milk, whole milk, brown sugar, salt.

Bring to boil and stir regularly for about 1 hour.

Reduce heat to low and taste to check consistency and flavor. It should not be watery or taste like bean. If it is, adjust flavor: add 1 tablespoon of sugar more and a pinch of salt

Skim beans from top and get rid of white foam. At this point, you want big bubbles.

Remove cloves.

Add sweet potatoes, evaporated milk, raisins. Add 1 tablespoon more of sugar.

Return to boil.

Add two tablespoons of cold milk at the end to “shock” the sweet potatoes.

And finish cooking them through.

Turn off fire.

Add 1 teaspoon of vanilla

Remove cinnamon and cool before serving.

Serve with cassava and cookies

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