- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Hands down, Southwest salad with black beans and corn is my favorite Fourth of July potluck choice.

To make it, marinate black beans and corn in olive oil and lots of lime juice, and season with garlic, onion, roasted whole cumin seeds and cilantro. Add colorful bell peppers for sweetness, freshness and sparkle. Textural contrast is provided by partly chewy, partly crunchy tortilla strips.

This salad has a way of pleasing everyone. Children gravitate toward it. Vegetarians are made happy by it. Even confirmed steak and hamburger fans love it as a side dish next to whatever just came off the grill.

Make it ahead of time, adding the fresh herbs and tortilla strips just before serving, and you will notice that the flavors ripen and improve as it sits.

Color is key. Please go out of your way to include at least two colors of bell pepper. And if you can make it with fresh corn shaved directly from the cob, all the better.

Raw sweet corn is a revelation. Once you taste it, you might agree with me that corn is actually best eaten this way. But first, a few words about the beans. Cooking beans for salad is a more delicate process than preparing them for soup. Soup beans can be much softer, and it doesn’t matter if they keep their shape. But for salad, we want separate but perfectly tender beans.

How to cook beans just right for salad? Be sure to soak them thoroughly in plenty of water for a minimum of 4 hours (overnight is best), then drain and rinse them well. Place them in a pot; add enough fresh water to cover by 2 inches. Then bring them to a boil. As soon as the water boils, lower the heat to a very slow simmer and partly cover the pot. Cook in quiet water until tender. If the water is rapidly boiling, the beans will break open and lose their shape.

Southwest salad with black beans and corn

2 cups dried black beans or 4 15-ounce cans black beans, rinsed and drained (see note)

2 cups fresh corn or frozen, defrosted corn

1 tablespoon minced garlic

2/3 cup minced red onion

½ each of 2 or 3 bell peppers of various colors, minced

1 medium-size carrot, minced or grated, optional

1 teaspoon salt

½ cup extra-virgin olive oil

1/3 cup lime juice or more

1 tablespoon whole cumin seeds

A couple handfuls minced fresh cilantro

A couple handfuls minced fresh flat-leaf parsley

Hot red pepper flakes

Freshly ground black pepper

3 to 4 corn tortillas

Olive oil spray

If using dried beans, soak beans for at least 4 hours, preferably overnight. Drain off excess soaking water, and rinse them well. Drain beans again, and place them in a soup pot. Add enough water to cover by 2 inches and bring to a boil. As soon as the water boils, partially cover the pot and turn the heat way down.

Cook at a very slow simmer with no agitation in the water for 11/4 to 1½ hours, or until beans are tender and done to your liking. Check intermittently to be sure there is enough water, and add more if necessary.

When beans are cooked, drain them well, then rinse thoroughly in cold water and drain again. Or, if using canned beans, open the cans, rinse and drain well.

In a large bowl, combine beans, corn, garlic, onion, bell peppers, carrot (if using), salt, olive oil and 1/3 cup lime juice.

Toast cumin seeds in a cast-iron skillet over medium heat, stirring, for several minutes or very carefully in a toaster oven. They are done when they give off an aroma. Do not let them become too dark, or they will taste burned.

Add toasted seeds to salad, along with cilantro, parsley, and red pepper flakes and black pepper to taste. Mix thoroughly but gently, taste, and correct seasonings, adding more lime juice if desired.

Cut tortillas into strips or child-designed shapes and mist liberally with olive oil spray. Cook pieces in one of two ways: Toast them on a tray in a preheated 350-degree oven for 2 to 3 minutes, or cook them in a preheated heavy skillet over medium heat for 2 to 3 minutes. Ideally, they should become partly crispy and partly chewy.

Sprinkle tortilla pieces on top of salad just before serving, and pass a small dish of extra chips, if desired. Makes 6 to 8 servings.

Note: This salad is also delicious with canned beans.

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