When I was 22, I lived for six weeks in Guatemala, at the Missionary Training Center (MTC). Each meal, we went down to eat in the small cafeteria and were served steaming bowls of native Guatemalan dishes by smiling señoras who spoke only Spanish, and who I couldn’t converse with much until the very end of my time there. I roomed with the other hermanas (sister missionaries) on the third floor of the compound, and each morning we were awakened by smells—fragrant cinnamon-and-vanilla avena (hot cereal), the slight cornmeal smell of atol, but most often, the pungent onion and humidity of slowly simmering beans.
For six weeks, we only left the compound area (which comprised of the training center and its accompanying buildings, plus the church building and the Guatemala temple) once, to do “divisions” with the full-time missionaries already out serving in Guatemala City. For six weeks, I had a singleness of purpose I’ve rarely felt at any other point in my life–everything about my schedule and how I spent my days had one sole purpose: to learn how to teach the restored gospel of Jesus Christ in the Spanish language.
If you’ve ever had the opportunity to devote such time and attention to just one sole pursuit, you’ll know from experience how beautiful the simplicity of it all is—rare are the times in my life when I’ve known exactly what my purpose at all times was, and even rarer when I’ve been able to have literally all my time to devote to it.
The days of intense study and constant buzzing of Spanish (which I could only understand about half of) and regimented blocks of time–personal study, classroom time, exercise, discussions with the MTC president–are all wrapped up in my memory with intense olfactory memories of the food we ate: the tamales, the rice, the freshly made corn tortillas, and, perhaps most of all, the beans. So many beans.
You really only have one of two options with so many beans surrounding you for so long (as I was also fed them constantly in the 16 months I would spend after this experience in El Salvador)—you will either learn to love beans for life, or you will get so sick of them that you will utterly refuse to be in their presence. Luckily for me, I landed in the former category. It took me a little while to get used to the idea of beans for breakfast, but after awhile, I relished the soupy mass of black beans smeared across my plate, intermingling with fresh crema and hot tortillas. It was the kind of breakfast that filled you up completely, so that your stomach would leave your mind alone to its arduous work of study, study, study.
Now, I was taught the “real” way to make beans by a Guatemalan companion I had later in my mission, who picked out the little pieces of rocks and dirt, who rinsed the beans endlessly with cold water to cleanse them, who let them soak overnight for a minimum of 8 hours, and who let them gently simmer–smothered in aromatic onions and chili powder–on our small portable stove all day long.
However, my life has changed a lot since my laser-focus missionary days—I am now a mother of three, and between a 7-month-old baby who needs bottles frequently and a toddler who makes his demands known loudly with shrieks and a preschooler who may or may not turn out to be a lawyer (based on her negotiating ability), my focus seems to be everywhere, all the time.
So I’ve learned to improvise with my beans and rice.
Below is my “harried mom” version of black beans and rice, which I slashed the prep time down on drastically without slashing (too much) of the multilayered flavor of the slow-cooked variety. I’ve also grossly Americanized it by chopping some precooked smoked sausage into the mix, mostly just to appease my husband, who grew up on beans and rice that was nearly always mixed with meat of some kind.
I wish I knew how to make tortillas like the Guatemalan señoras because these positively scream for the homemade, thick variety of tortillas to use as scooping vehicles for the beans and rice. But, in the interest of time and skill, I make my beans in the Instant Pot, my rice in a rice cooker, and fry an egg to go over the top. I dirty three dishes and rely on appliances my Central American counterparts would cluck their tongues at, but in the end, I’m still able to conjure up memories of mixed-language conversations in the MTC, of basketball variations that were created to help us learn verb conjugations, and always, always! the memory of the smells that woke me up every morning.
Instant Pot No-Soak Black Beans
- One 16-oz bag of dry, uncooked black beans
- 3-1/4 cups water (see note)
- 1/2 onion, chopped
- 3 garlic cloves, minced (or 1 tsp garlic powder)
- 1 teaspoon cumin
- 1 tablespoon chili powder
- 2 teaspoons salt
- 1 bay leaf
- One 14 oz. precooked smoked sausage rope, chopped
- fresh cilantro and rice, for serving
- Put beans in a colander and rinse with cold water. Pick out any bits of dirt or debris.
- Place beans, water, onion, spices, and bay leaf in the Instant Pot and give a gentle stir.
- Make sure the valve is set to “seal” mode and secure the lid.
- In the “manual” mode of the Instant Pot, dial the time to cook for 28 minutes.
- When the beans are cooked, allow the pressure to naturally release for 10 minutes, then do a quick release of the extra pressure.
- Take out the bay leaf.
- Stir in the diced precooked smoked sausage and resecure the lid. The heat from the beans should be enough to warm up the sausage after about 5 minutes (while the Instant Pot is on the “keep warm” feature.)
- Give the beans another good stir, throw on some chopped cilantro, and serve over rice.
***You can substitute chicken or vegetable broth for the water to give the beans more flavor, but as the sodium content of broth varies widely, you might have to adjust the salt down.
***If you like your beans slightly more soupy, use an immersion blender for about a minute to liquify some of the beans at the end, or take a cup or two and blend it in a normal blender. You might need to add a bit of broth, a quarter cup at a time, if more liquid is needed.
***A pound of cooked ground beef would also taste good in this, either in addition to or in place of the sausage. (You can obviously leave out any kind of meat too and make this a vegetarian dish.)
***This makes approximately four cups of beans.
Ohh, these sound so good.
I love when you talk about the mission you went on. That’s so fascinating and it sounds like it was life-changing. Can you still speak Spanish fluently?
Not as fluently as I once could, but I can speak it passably enough, as long as we’re not talking about anything too technical or with any specialized vocabulary or anything like that, ha ha.