A menestra is a popular stew type dish made lentils or beans and served with rice, plantains, salad and your choice of protein: beef, pork, fish, chicken or an egg (vegetarian option). The menestra de lentejas is most common type of menestra that you will find in Ecuador. My mom, with her background in New Mexican food, made menestra de porotos or beans more frequently than menestra de lentejas. She is probably to blame for my intense dislike of canned beans; once you get used to cooking beans from scratch it is really hard to eat bland canned beans. Yes, you can add spices and flavor to canned beans, but it doesn’t compare to homemade cooked beans.
In Ecuador you can find a huge variety of beans, I love going to the market and looking at all the different colors of beans. Menestras are usually made with dry beans, however one of my favorite is menestra de porotos tiernos or fresh beans. Fresh beans are harder to find here in the US, though I did see some last summer at the farmer’s market and will try a fresh bean menestra this summer.
A menestra would not be a true menestra without the essential side dishes: rice (a must – no substitutions) helps soak up the sauce that the beans simmered in. The fried ripe plantains complement the dish with a nice sweet touch. Some avocado slices and a small side salad, with onion and tomato curtido, add freshness and acidity. Finally, most restaurants will offer you a choice of fried or grilled meat, pork, chicken, or fish, with the menestra. When I was growing up, my mom tried to limit the amount of meat we ate, so it was very common for her to serve this menestra de porotos with a fried egg instead of meat. If you are vegetarian and are ordering this dish at a restaurant you can also request an egg in place of the meat.
The beans in the menestra get their flavor from simmering the spices and vegetables that make up the refrito or base of the dish. The refrito for this menestra is made with diced red onions, diced tomatoes, crushed garlic, achiote or annatto powder, cumin (both whole and ground, and chili powder; very basic ingredients that add a lot of flavor to the beans. The final touch is the chopped fresh cilantro or parsley that is added at the end. This bean menestra is a very easy dish to make; it takes a couple hours to cook and the beans need to soak overnight, but the preparation is very simple.
Ingredients (for 8-10 large servings):
1 lb dry beans, soaked overnight
2-3 tbs canola oil
1 red onion, diced
6 garlic cloves, crushed
1 cup of diced and peeled tomatoes (fresh or canned)
½ tsp achiote powder
1 tsp cumin seeds – whole
1 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp chili powder, more or less to taste
8 or more cups water
2-3 tbs finely chopped cilantro or parsley
Salt and pepper to taste
- Heat the oil over medium heat in a saucepan or pot, add the diced onions and crushed garlic, let cook for about 2-3 minutes.
- Add the diced tomatoes, achiote powder, cumin seeds and ground cumin, chili powder, salt and pepper. Cook for another 5 minutes, stirring occasionally.
- Add 8 cups of water and bring to a boil.
- Add the soaked beans and simmer for about 2 hours.
- Mix in the chopped cilantro or parsley.
- Serve with Ecuadorian style cooked rice, fried plantains, salad with tomato and onion curtido, fried or grilled meat (or fish /poultry/egg), avocado slices and some good aji or hot sauce on the side.