Dominican red bean stew, better known as Sancocho de habichuelas or Sopión, is a robust, hearty dish and a true favorite of mine. This rich and spicy stew is a twist on the traditional sancocho, and in my opinion, a conceptual cousin of the famous French cassoulet.
Technically speaking, it’s a bean-based stew prepared with meat and root vegetables. It sounds simple, but those who have tried it swear by its depth of flavor – and after one bite there’s no questioning why it’s a staple in Dominican cuisine.
The main ingredient is of course the red bean, which gets turned into a creamy base. This is the blank canvas where all the ingredients will come to play. To this, flavorful smoked meats are added: pork ribs, pork chops and the star of the show, longaniza (a variety of chorizo seasoned with bitter oranges, garlic, salt and oregano). Finally, a medley of substantial roots and veggies join the party: green and yellow plantains, batata, and my personal favorite, yucca. These ingredients are simmered (or sancochados) for a couple of hours until we get a succulent cream with layers upon layers of flavor.
After years of watching experienced cooks make this dish, I was particularly intimidated to make it myself. So before diving into the cooking process, I did proper research and interviewed two experts in the field: my mother-in-law and my mother. Each gave me tips and techniques on how to achieve great Sopión without the fuss. My mother in law, being from Santiago (northern city in the D.R.) emphasizes the importance of extracting and reserving the cooking juices from the meats to be added later to the stew for optimal results. “That’s where the true flavor lives,” she says. In the other hand, my mom highlights the role of the sofrito (seasoning) to achieve a well-balanced sazón. But my two advisors found did agree on one thing: the importance of using fresh ingredients!
Sancocho de habichuelas is definitely not a solitary meal meant for two. On the contrary, this dish is regularly reserved for special occasions, gatherings and family reunions, and it is most likely accompanied by music and a good hand of domino. There’s something very ritualistic about it: the chatter in the background, the constant stirring of the pot, people picking into the kitchen inquiring about waiting time before eating, the constant demands for “tastings” prior to serving… it is all part of the experience.
Well, let me show you how to do it, and I promise is not nearly as difficult as you think. Not only will your family thank you for making this dish, but you’ll thank yourself too. Can you smell the sense of accomplishment? I know I do.
Dominican Bean Stew (Sancocho de habichuela)
2 lbs red beans (not canned)
2 lbs smoked pork chops with bone
2 lbs smoked pork ribs
2 lbs smoked pork sausage (longaniza)
½ tablespoon oregano
Cilantro ancho (aka recaíto) — about half a packet
Cilantro (same quantity as cilantro ancho)
8 green bonnet peppers (seeds out)
15 cloves of garlic
3 tablespoons tomato paste
1/4 cup bitter orange juice
2 medium yellow onions
1 tablespoon of salt (or more, taste)
3 drops of hot sauce (or more, to taste)
Roots and Vegetables
3 corn cobs sliced in rounds (optional)
3 yuccas – cut in small pieces
3 green plantains — cut in rounds
2 batatas – cut in small pieces
1. Pre-cook the meats: In a large pan, add the meats (in 3 separate batches) and simmer for a few minutes on 1 cup of water until the juices are sealed. Then remove the meats from the pan and reserve the juices (very important! this is where the flavor is)
2. Seasoning: Blend all the ingredients listed above under “seasoning.” Taste and adjust salt if necessary.
3. Marinade the meats: Add the seasoning to the meats and massage well. Allow this to marinate for at last 1 to 2 hours on the fridge. Meanwhile, get the beans ready.
4. The bean cream: In a large pot, boil some water (about 6-8 cups) and then add the beans (washed and clean), 1 teaspoon white vinegar and a dash of sugar. Add more water (enough to cover the beans) and boil on high heat until fork tender. Blend the beans and some of the hot liquid from the pot, and pass through a colander to avoid lumps. I repeated this process twice to ensure a smooth texture. Add the beans to a large pot (the one you’ll use to make the stew) and add in the meat juices we reserved earlier with 2 cups of water and simmer on low heat, uncovered.
7. Sauté the meats: In a large pan, add 1 tablespoon of canola oil and sauté the meats (again in 3 batches) until sealed and a bit golden, for a few minutes. Then add it to the stew pot when done. At this point you’ve incorporated the meats, seasoning and bean cream together. Now, make sure to add a bit more water if needed (to get a more liquid consistency) and let simmer on high heat for about 30 minutes.
9. Then add in the roots and vegetables, adjusting the water and seasoning if necessary. Remember to dissolve the salt in a little bit of water before adding to the stew.
10. Cover with aluminum foil and let simmer on high heat for about 1 hour. Check the salt again, and adjust if you need to. Stew is done once you get a creamy texture and all ingredients are thoroughly incorporated.
11. Serve with white rice, avocado and the company of your loved ones.
Carrol Luna is a Dominican food blogger living in New York. She’s the mastermind behind carrolluna.com, where she features food, original videos and recipes. Her motto is “Everything in moderation. Including moderation.”