Being Mexican, one of the staples of my mother’s dinner table was beans. She liked pinto beans, and as a child I was required to sift through the dried beans and remove the small stones added to the beans to increase their weight. It was boring and tedious and a lot of small stones got past me. But I liked my mother’s beans, especially when they were refried and mashed in hot lard. We had these with eggs for breakfast.
The first time I tried to make beans as an adult was when I was cooking dinner for my future father-in-law, I’ll call him Big Bob, mostly because he was tall and had a big booming voice. I remembered how my mother would start the beans early in the morning and they would boil on the stove for hours, and she added water as needed.
I rinsed the beans like mom used to do, added water, and started cooking. Hours later, the beans were still hard. I added more water and turned up the heat, Big Bob was due any moment at our studio apartment on East Houston Street and the beans were still uncooked.
I tried really hard to make an authentic Mexican brunch for my future father-in-law and my girlfriend’s three siblings, but in the end the beans part of the brunch partially burned on the stove, and what didn’t burn was still “al dente,” or hard to the bite.
“The beans have a sort of smoky flavor, how did you do that?” Asked Big Bob.
“Ah, actually, I sort of burnt them a little.”
He put down his fork and didn’t touch a single thing on his plate for the rest of the meal. It should have told me something about my future wife’s learned behavior, but I had to find out the hard way.
Eventually I looked up how to cook beans, and found out that the most important step was to soak the beans in water overnight, otherwise they’ll never get soft.
Thirty years and many pots of beans later, I’ve finally perfected my Mexican beans, and I make them regularly, though not quite as regularly as mom did.
So, in case you ever get the urge to make beans, I have put down my recipe here.
I like to use red beans, I just love the color and flavor, much richer than pintos or any other kind of bean. So, red kidney or small red chili beans to start. Pick out the stones, if any, and soak overnight. I use a half a pound of beans, which makes a little less than a quart of beans, enough to last me a week.
Next, I chop half a small red onion and sauté it in a couple of tablespoons of hot oil in a four-quart pot. You can also add a couple of cloves of minced garlic, if you’re into garlic.
I bought a “Chopper” this summer, after using one at my friend Albert’s home where we stayed for a week, but I’ve decided it’s too noisy and too much of a pain in the ass to clean, so I’m back to hand chopping with a chef’s knife. It feels more real to me.
As the onion caramelizes, rinse your beans in cold water. Add the beans to the hot pot. This makes a great sizzling sound that will always remind me of my mother’s kitchen.
Add a quart of water, and bring to a boil.
When it’s boiling, I add my secret sauce/stock. You can use a couple of cubes of bullion, chicken or beef stock, and any spices you might want to put in to taste.
I’ll tell you what’s in my secret sauce/stock in case you want to make it.
I cooked chicken the day before, and to do it first I sautéed the onion and a whole jalapeño, reduced them in water, added a couple of tablespoons of red molé, some turmeric, a dash of salt, and a teaspoon of Grace’s jerk sauce. This was added to the chicken and slow roasted in the oven.
After the chicken was done I saved the broth in a separate jar, and this is enough to make two pots of beans.
So add your secret sauce/stock, and reduce the flame to a simmer. Cook for an hour or so, adding water as needed. You don’t want to burn them the way I did.
Keep checking the softness of the beans, and if you like refries, the softer the beans the easier it will be to mash and refry them. If you want the beans for like a three-bean salad, leave them a little firmer. When they start to split in two, you know you’ve gone too far.
When you’re done, you can save the juice separately, or leave the beans in it. The brown juice makes a rich egg-drop soup if you want a quick cup of nourishment.
If you want to make refries, you definitely need to drain the juice.
To refry, simply heat some oil in a saucepan, add the beans and use a potato masher to mash them to your required consistency.
The beans can also be used as a base for an awesome chili- in the future I’ll post the chili recipe, one that’s guaranteed to leave you panting and red-faced.
The secret to good cooking is not to get caught up exact amounts and ingredients, you can substitute and add/subtract ingredients to your taste, but most importantly, put a little love in it.