When my wife and I make our regular trips to Bogotá, it's virtually guaranteed that three things will happen within the first 24 hours:
- I'll massively misjudge my ability to mix alcohol with altitude and end up sleeping in and feeling sick the entire second day.
- Through their insane ability to always assume the best of people, my in-laws will explain it away and apologize because my stomach "must not be used to Colombian food."
- My wife will talk to her aunt and request a full frijoles spread.
Colombians take their beans as seriously as they do their potatoes and arepas, which means they rank somewhere up there between family and religion. The fat red beans common to the Colombian Andes are not merely a side dish, they are the focal point of a gigantic meal.
At its core, a meal of frijoles needs nothing more than cooked seasoned red beans and rice, but from there it can grow in many directions. The greatest bean dinner is a fast-worthy plate called the bandeja paisa, and it reminds me of a full British breakfast in its makeup and extensive application of fried foods. Beans, rice, arepas, fried green or black plantains, avocado, a thin slice of grilled steak, deep fried pork rinds (known as chicharrones), a chorizo or two, a side of ají to sauce everything up, and a fried egg to top it off.
It's a ridiculously hearty meal eaten for lunch and meant to fuel the hard working mountain folks through the afternoon. My family tends to use it as an excuse to take a nap.
No matter what you serve on the side, the most important elements is the beans. I've never seen the big fat Colombian red beans on sale in the States, but the largest red beans you can find (or even dark kidney beans) will do the trick. When my Aunt Gloria makes them, she's inevitably making crisp fried chicharrones as well, so she uses the fried pork belly chunks to season the beans as they cook, along with onion, tomato, and a pinch of sugar.
Back home, where we eat far less fried pork belly, I just crisp up some raw pork belly in the pot before adding the beans and remaining aromatics.
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About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Chief Creative Officer of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.
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