Traditionally served with breakfast alongside fried or scrambled eggs, Gallo Pinto is a hearty and delicious traditional Costa Rican dish. It’s a cinch to prepare, too!
I’ve always been interested in exploring international cuisine. In addition to my trusty Time-Life Foods of the World cookbook series (which, I know I’ve gushed about before; it’s a vintage collection at this point, but if you have an opportunity to get your hands on a set, I highly recommend!), I’m also lucky to have friends from a variety of cultural heritages.
Most recently, a few of my friends whose families hail from Costa Rica offered to teach me how to prepare some of their favorite traditional dishes, which, in turn, I’m able to share with you (score!). A few weeks ago, I learned to make Gallo Pinto, Costa Rican Rice and Beans. One bite, and it’s safe to say that I have a new favorite rice dish in my recipe collection. I couldn’t put my fork down!
Gallo Pinto means, quite literally, “Spotted Rooster” in Spanish, characterizing the speckled appearance of the dark beans against the white rice. It’s typically served as a part of a hearty breakfast, alongside fried or scrambled eggs, with accompaniments such as sour cream (“natilla” in Costa Rica, which is thinner than the American variety), a crispy slice of fried white cheese (“queso frito”), plantains, sliced avocado, a corn tortilla, and a strong cup of coffee.
I loved the contrast of the egg’s crispy edges and velvety yolk against the creamy, lightly-spiced rice and beans. Plus, it’s easy to make, especially if you prep the rice and beans ahead of time. (In fact, day-old rice is preferred, as the refrigerated grains are easier to separate and combine with the beans and sauce.) What a way to start the day!
While Costa Rican cuisine is full of robust, fresh flavors, the heat level (at least, in the dishes I’ve tasted) tends to be mild. If there’s one thing we’ve established on this blog it’s that I’m a total lightweight when it comes to “hot” spices, so I’m pretty much in love!
The primary seasoning in traditional Gallo Pinto is Salsa Lizano, a vegetable-based condiment used widely throughout Costa Rica. The sauce is thin-textured and easily pourable, with a golden, tan color. Tasted on its own, it’s fairly salty, with a warm, round flavor of cumin and a bit of pepper.
Many recipes suggest using Worcestershire Sauce as an alternative if Salsa Lizano is unavailable. I can see the parallel, but Worcestershire most definitely lacks the smokiness of Lizano. If making the substitution, I would add a bit of cumin to the rice for a more traditional flavor (more on this in the recipe notes below).
I haven’t visited Costa Rica myself (yet!), but from what I’ve heard and read, it is an absolutely gorgeous country. The landscape is diverse (think: incredible beaches, majestic mountains, cloud forests, volcanoes), the culture rich, and, judging by my friends, the people some of the warmest in the world.
The Costa Rican people live by the mantra of “Pura Vida,” meaning “Pure Life.” It means living peacefully, positively, and in the moment, with happiness and gratitude for the good things in your life. Pura Vida reflects a profound appreciation for the simple beauty of life itself and the people in it. What a wonderful way to live.
Gallo Pinto (Costa Rican Beans and Rice)
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 red bell pepper, chopped
- 1 small yellow onion, chopped
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 2 cups cooked black beans, in 3/4 cup reserved cooking liquid*
- 1/4 cup Salsa Lizano**
- 3 cups cooked rice, preferably, day-old and refrigerated
- 1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro
Heat olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat until shimmering. Sauté chopped bell pepper and onions until peppers are soft and onions are translucent, about 6-8 minutes. Add minced garlic and cook for 1 minute, until fragrant.
Add black beans, reserved cooking liquid, and Salsa Lizano, stirring to combine. Simmer for 5 minutes, until slightly thickened and little bit of the liquid is evaporated. Gently stir in cooked rice and cook until heated through and most of the liquid is absorbed, but not dry, about 3-5 minutes. Stir in chopped cilantro. Season to taste with additional Salsa Lizano (we added about a tablespoon extra).
*Low-sodium canned beans in their liquid can be subsititued here if time is of the essence. But, if you do have the time to soak and cook beans from dried, the flavor and texture will be a big reward!
To cook beans from dry: Place 1 pound sorted, rinsed black beans in a large bowl and add enough cool water to cover by 1-2 inches. Soak overnight, 8-12 hours. Drain beans, transfer to a large pot or Dutch oven and cover with fresh, cool water by 1-2 inches. Add 1-2 bay leaves, a handful of cilantro, and a few garlic cloves, if desired. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to low to maintain a gentle simmer, and cook until beans are tender throughout. This will take 1-2 hours, depending on size and age of beans. Add a few pinches of salt to the water when beans are just starting to get tender (adding salt too soon will add to the cooking time). Cool and store beans in their cooking liquid, discarding any aromatics you've added.
**Salsa Lizano is essential to this dish. It's available in some Latin markets, much to my pleasant surprise, in the International aisle at my local grocery store, and can be ordered online. If you're absolutely unable to locate Salsa Lizano, you can make this recipe with Worcestershire Sauce, but the flavor will not be traditional. If using Worcestershire Sauce, add ground cumin to the rice to bring some of the smokiness of the Lizano to the dish (start with 1/2 teaspoon and increase, to taste, from there).