Black Bean and Tomatillo Soup w/ Lime and Cilantro

The finger-pointer living inside me wants to blame mother for my lifelong aversion to soup.

But I won’t listen. It’s Christmas time. It’s the season for giving.

And after all, my mother and I, we had an agreement. We forged it very early on, and I respected it always – even if ultimately she didn’t.

I’m sure that even Gloria would readily admit she spent very little time cooking when I was growing up in our three bedroom house that at any given time had to accommodate two parents, four children, a dog and a cat. But even without her full time job as an office administrator for the law firm of Garrett & Fisher (morphing later into Garrett & Dimino, and later still into Dimino & Card), I don’t think Gloria’s first choice for personal stimulation and recreation would have ever been the kitchen.

That isn’t to say Gloria ever let us starve. On the contrary. After she and my father discussed their respective days over a glass of wine in the den, she would dutifully make her way to the kitchen and prepare one of the Chicken and Rice Recipes she used to do, though I’m sure a second glass of Merlot would have been more to her liking.

But my mother’s culinary expertise was at best a matter of opinion. Her goal in the kitchen was never to instill a passion for flavor and refined cooking in her children. Her goal was mainly to keep us alive.

Not that it mattered to me. Gloria had early on seen to it that I knew my way around a kitchen enough to feed myself if necessary. And I never understood why she would bother in the kitchen anyway when she could spend all of her time in a real-life professional office environment, which symbolized nirvana for me as a child… the fake mahogany doors, manila file folders, endless supplies of staples, rubber bands and paper clips, storage devices and desk organizers aplenty, and the crowning glory – an honest to goodness bell at the reception desk!

As a kid, I was forever fascinated with multi-line phone systems and would wait at Gloria’s desk, foot tapping, until the end of the workday. Once everyone had left, I would immediately proceed to make each and every phone ring, in order, from one end of the office to the other. I was also fond of furiously pounding away on electric typewriters, inking gibberish to page at what had to be at least 200 words per minute. And I relished smashing my face against the glass of the copier machine and preserving the image forever on legal size copy paper. There were endless adventures for me at a law office.

Meanwhile, the number of regular dinner options my mother made could be counted on two hands: spaghetti and jarred meat sauce, fried hamburger with potatoes, red macaroni with melted cheddar, Shake-n-Bake pork chops, and more than a family’s fair share of Chef Boyardee canned pastas. My taste buds may never have been overly-aroused, but my stomach was always full.

I considered it a square deal between me and Gloria. It went forever unsaid, but it was always understood. In exchange for looking past a limited dinner menu, I was rewarded with the opportunity to run amok on an occasional after hours “office safari.” Who needed dinner? I had leatherback chairs with wheels on them!

Imagine my surprise then – when with a warning I can only see now in hindsight – Gloria suddenly became possessed by a desire to bless our household with more extravagant and sophisticated meals, leading off with an all-day crock pot mission baring the ominous throat-withering name, “Beef Barley Soup.”

There weren’t enough file folders in the world to make up for this betrayal.

Where Gloria’s uncharacteristic leap into the culinary unknown originated I cannot tell you. But I do remember the first sign of it: the arrival in the mail of a Betty Crocker Recipe Library Set. This was the mid 1970s where monthly information cards were routinely offered on television and in magazines to satisfy any and all interests: wild animals, world capitals, famous generals from the American Revolution, and lots of kitchen improvement suggestions including not only how to prepare meals but how to be a winning entertainer in the home. Each set of Betty Crocker cards that arrived at our home focused around a particular theme: “American Classics,” “Dessert Spectaculars,” “Outdoor Entertaining,” and of course the ever memorable, “Men’s Favorites.”

How could I do anything other than applaud the organization of the Betty Crocker people? As a child who loved (needed) finding a place for everything, those laminated cards (so easy to clean, so difficult to dog ear) with their full color pictures, along with the dreamy flip-lid file box so that everything could be neatly organized by category … well an OCD kid such as myself could not have asked his mother for a better toy than this box of recipes.

It never dawned on me that she was actually going to try and make one of them.

But it was only a few days later that a bowl of beef barley soup was set in front of me at the dinner table. We knew it was coming. We had smelled it conspiring against us all day, and we had taken the occasional gander at the happenings under the sweaty crock pot lid: an evil pond of barley, disintegrating stew meat, bloated green beans, and glutinous tomato chunks. How did my mother ever think her family was going to adjust from Shake-n-Bake to this murky monstrosity overnight?

Of course, none of us did. I bravely took several spoonfuls before my gag reflex overcame me and I could take no more. My dad loaded his plate with extra slices of bread. My sister swirled a spoon in her share of the concoction several hundred times, and then cried.

And since no food ever went to waste in our home, Gloria simply poured anything we didn’t finish back into the pot to re-heat and serve again the following night. On and on it went until a pot of soup that was supposed to serve five family members for three nights was inflicting barley-flavored misery on us for more than a week.

And from there well into my adulthood, the idea of soup being served to me as a meal immediately turned my stomach. The word “soup” itself took on a nauseating connotation, no matter what ingredients were presented within it.

I ate soup so rarely that when I did, it was genuinely photo worthy. Several years ago, I was overcome with an inexplicable desire for corn chowder while visiting San Francisco on a chilly mid-December night. It was most likely a by-product of the adventurous spirit that always overcomes me whenever I’m there. Nothing can be bad in San Francisco. I still firmly believe that. Not even soup. It was that night that set me on a determined course to overcome the nearly three decades of avoidance and resentment that had built up inside of me.

I have succeeded in satisfying myself with a number of soups over the past year. Most especially Gordon Ramsay’s chilled cucumber, and an Epicurious recipe for summer tomato and red pepper.  But nothing thus far tops my admiration for the soup being presented here, mostly because it contains two of my very favorite ingredients: tomatillos and cotija cheese.

Tomatillos I have praised before on my blog.  Grown to a maturity within thin papery husks, they have a heartier skin and meatier consistency than their tomato cousin, with a tart taste in its raw form that is mellowed considerably (though not completely) during the cooking process.

Cotija cheese is salty, hard and crumbly.  Made primarily from cow’s milk, cotija is sometimes referred to as the “Mexican Parmesan” for its use as a flavor addition to meals rather than a solo table cheese.

With the further additions of cilantro, garlic and lime, this soup can be used as a warming, tangy feast for dinner or as a cold hangover cure in the morning.  Rice, onions and black beans add texture and color variation.  You can also easily substitute water or vegetarian broth for the chicken broth in case there are any non-meat eaters in your clan.

My parents have since retired from their professions, and mom now cooks for pure enjoyment rather than out of necessity, and as you might expect under those circumstances, is quite good.  Amongst my siblings, however, she will never fully live down the “Beef Barley Soup Plague” she once brought upon our house. But in exchange for the right number of clicker pens and multi-colored portfolio binders, I myself might just forgive and forget.

Black Bean and Tomatillo Soup with Lime and Cilantro
original recipe from Kalyn’s Kitchen

  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 onion, finely chopped
  • 8 tomatillos, chopped in 1/4 inch pieces (about 2 cups chopped tomatillo)
  • 1 tbsp finely minced garlic
  • 1 tbsp dried cilantro (I substituted in fresh)
  • 2 tsp dried Mexican Oregano
  • 2 tsp ground cumin
  • 2 cans black beans, rinsed well
  • 2 cans diced tomatoes with juice
  • 4 cups chicken broth
  • 1 cup water
  • 1/2 cup uncooked brown rice
  • 1/2 cup fresh squeezed lime juice (or a bit less if you don’t love lime like I do)
  • 1 cup chopped fresh cilantro, plus more for garnish if desired
  • 1/4 cup cotija cheese per bowl served (as a topping)

Chop onions and tomatillos into pieces about 1/4 inch. Heat olive oil in large frying pan, then saute onions and tomatillos about 5 minutes.  Add in garlic, Mexican Oregano, cumin, and dried cilantro (since I used fresh I waited to add it all at once as indicated below).  Saute for an additional 1-2 minutes. While vegetables saute, dump beans into a colander placed in the sink and rinse thoroughlly.

Put tomatillo-onion mixture into large 4-5 quart crockpot.  Add beans, tomatoes with juice, chicken stock, water, and brown rice. Cook on high for 4 hours (or low for 8 hours.)

At the last ten minutes of cooking, add in lime juice

After 4 hours, turn the crockpot to low setting, and let it cook 15 minutes to lower the temperature (bypass that step if you cooked it 8 hours at low).  Add the fresh lime juice and cilantro and cook 10 minutes on low. Serve hot, top with the cotija cheese and additional chopped cilantro for garnish if desired.

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3 thoughts on “Black Bean and Tomatillo Soup w/ Lime and Cilantro

  • December 29, 2010 at 9:25 am

    Another entertaining post….you are just laugh-out-loud funny Gary! I loved the part about the Betty Crocker recipe library….my mom had one too and I am in possesion of the one my mother-in-law had…ahhhhhh…memories! Keep up the posts….love reading what you are up to!

  • December 29, 2010 at 5:38 pm

    Thanks Penny. If you’re still looking for a post on soups, you’re welcome to it, or I can modify for you or do a whole different one. 🙂

  • December 31, 2010 at 9:01 am

    Gary Gary Gary,

    Since you are now a connoisseur of soup I am sending you a copy, old and beat up, of the famous Barley soup. After reading it again I think I’ll make it next week.
    Make it for yourself and see if it really sucks

    Love and Kisses the will maker!

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