Delicately Spiced Black Bean Soup with Corn, Cilantro and Lime

Black Bean Soup by Dena T Bray©

Outside the window, a fallen-leaf covered field stretches in front of our house, down the  hill and into the woods.  I had just set up my ironing board, ready to smooth out the creases in the week’s laundry. Steam was beginning to puff out of the iron.  Movement in the grass caught my eye and much to my amazement, a red and gold fox meandered into my line of site. It moved slowly but with grace, its white-tipped tail shimmering in the sunlight. It stopped now and again, munching on bits of something in the grass or stretching out in the sunlight for a brief rest or to scratch itself. It was not seeking prey and showed no signs that it was alert to any predators. Without a care in the world, it was fully present, enjoying the moment. This went on a full 5 minutes, while I worked.

Ironing is in itself a mundane task, but one that I enjoy because it’s a process I can see through from beginning to end. I find there is something elemental aroused in me as the heat of the iron shapes and smooths cotton. I imagine my husband in his crisp white shirt getting ready for the day. I feel myself slipping on my favorite wrap dress―made of a rich burgundy colored jersey material―I look forward to wearing it on special occasions during the fall and early winter.  I’d had a dark and hurtful argument with my mother on the phone before all this happened. You see, my sister Ronnie’s birthday is coming up this week. She was not yet 39 when she died in 1988. Killed during a mugging on the way home from a 4th of July party, her life had been full of hardship. While others celebrated with fireworks and beer, the circumstances of her death were a mystery and a tragedy. My mother and I have never been able to speak about what happened. For each of us, the pain is so deep, so frightening that we cannot find a way to comfort one another. Instead, we always find something petty to argue about with great vehemence. The anger lets us feel the pain without acknowledging its true source. We create more tragedy.

But this year I had the fox outside to remind me of life’s pleasures even while I was in pain. It reminded me to be in the present and to feel the light. I was so delighted by it that I had the urge to set up a video camera in our yard to capture other wildlife as they passed through. But that would be missing the point. That would be looking for something that “might have been”, as I often do when I think about Ronnie’s life cut short. It is not the might have been that counts, rather what is here and now that matters.

While all this was happening this Delicately Spiced Black Bean Soup with Corn, Cilantro and Lime was simmering on the stove top. Filling the air in our house with the rich fragrances of cinnamon, ginger, hot peppers and the smoke of roasted ham, it brought another kind of comfort into my cold and dark heart. Warm soup, garnished with fresh vegetables and herbs, served to sooth dark feelings.

So, today I thank the fox and wish my big sister a very happy birthday.

I look forward to seeing you in my kitchen, gathering flavors, soon.


Black Bean Soup on Wooden Board by Dena T Bray©


Yield: 8 Servings


  • 2 cups dried black beans
  • 1 smoked ham hock
  • ¼ cup olive oil or ghee
  • 2 large yellow or white onions, peeled and thinly sliced
  • 4 large cloves garlic, peeled and thinly sliced
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
  • 1 teaspoon ground coriander seeds
  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin
  • ½ teaspoon cayenne
  • ½ teaspoon ground ginger
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 large chunk fresh ginger, rinsed
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

For serving:

  • 1 cup cooked white or brown rice
  • 2 cups cooked corn kernels
  • 1 cup fresh cilantro, rinsed and  lightly chopped
  • Juice of 2 limes or lemons


  1. The night before you plan to make this soup, rinse the black beans. Place in a pot large enough to cover them liberally with cool water. Cover and let soak overnight.
  2. The next morning, drain the soaked beans. Place in a large soup pot and cover again with fresh, cool water. Bring to a boil then lower the heat to a simmer. Simmer until the beans are tender, about one to two hours. (Simmering time will vary depending on the freshness of the beans.) Stir occasionally during the simmering process and skim off any scum that collects at the top of the pot.
  3. While the beans are simmering, preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Place the smoked ham hock on a small baking dish. Place in oven and roast until well browned, about 20 minutes. Remove from oven and set aside.
  4. In a large skillet, heat the olive oil or ghee. Add the sliced onions and garlic. Sauté until the vegetables are translucent and lightly browned, about ten minutes. Add the dried spices and toss to coat the vegetables. Saute a few minutes longer until the spices are aromatic and lightly browned.
  5. Add the cooked vegetables and spices to the soup pot. Add the roasted ham hock. Add the bay leaf, cinnamon stick and chunk of ginger. Stir to combine. Pour one cup of water into the pan in which you browned the vegetables. Heat slightly. Using a wooden spoon, scrape any browned bits of vegetables from the pan. Pour everything over the beans. Stir to combine.  Bring the liquid to a boil, then reduce to a simmer. Simmer, stirring occasionally, for one hour.
  6. Using heat proof thongs, remove the ham hock,  cinnamon stick, bay leaf and chunk of ginger. Set the ham hock on a cutting board and remove the meat. Cut into bite sized pieces. Discard the cinnamon stick, bay leaf and ginger. With an immersion blender, purée the soup. Add the meat from the ham hock. Stir to combine. Bring the soup to a boil. Taste. Add salt and freshly ground black pepper, as needed.
  7. To serve, divide the soup between 8 serving bowls. Garnish with cooked  rice, fresh corn kernels and fresh cilantro. Sprinkle with fresh lime juice.
  8. Serve and enjoy.


  1. To make a vegetarian soup, leave out the ham hock.
  2. This soup can be made in a slow cooker. Follow manufacturer’s instructions for soup.
  3. If you do not have time to soak the beans, substitute 4 cups canned black beans. Rinse and cover beans with water or stock.
  4. For a full meal, consider serving with chilled dark beer, Fragrant Onion Rolls, a platter of cheeses and smoked meats, A Market Morning Salad, and Spice Muffins for dessert.

Corn with Flower and Lemon by Dena T Bray©