When I first read about refried beans, I think in a book by Jan Kerouac where they were referred to by their proper name, Frijoles Refritos, I thought that they sounded deeply romantic and exotic. I pictured myself walking past brightly coloured adobe houses, my long skirts brushing against the dusty red roads, then stopping at a roadside vendor and buying a Tamale. I imagined that I could smell the hot cornmeal as I unpeeled the husk, my olfactory senses tempted by the smells of roasted chilies, my other senses enlivened by Mescal.
Alongside my Frida Kahlo-esque dreams of Mexico, the only other way we can replicate the blazing hot sun and glazed bean pots is in our kitchen. Along with our sense of smell, the taste of something evocative can send us hurtling to those imaginary places we have always wanted to visit, or to remind us of those idyllic childhood foods that always tasted so much better back then.
I have more cookbooks on the food of Mexico than anything else and I never tire of the cuisine, its seeming simplicity and reliance on slow cooking to extract every molecule of flavour, the use of so many types of chillies, all of which play a different role. When I smell fragrant Cumin or Cinnamon or my nose starts to tickle from a generic hot capsicum (because that’s all my local supermarket stocks), I feel as though I am there, reliving imaginary adventures.
My Mother-In-Law Judith recently gave me a book on Mexican cuisine called Mexico – The Beautiful Cookbook. It is a huge outsize book and you may remember the series from your local Barnes and Noble. I often flip through this book whilst lying in bed but I cooked from it for the first time yesterday. The authors, Suzanna Palazuelos and Marilyn Tausend, have grouped the book loosely into regions, and there is a useful guide to some of the more unusual ingredients, such as Huitlacoche – the Mexican Corn Truffle (and if anyone knows where I can locate a tin in the UK or would be kind enough to send me some, I would be their eternal friend).
With this being one of the most concise books on the Mexican kitchen, it was extremely hard for us to choose one recipe in particular to cook. However, we chose Paul’s favourite, Refried Beans. My original daydreams about Refried Beans were shattered when I first tasted some from a tin. Dry, claggy and distinctly lacking in flavour, these were surely not what I had been yearning for all these years? I must have been missing something because Paul chowed down on his Bean Burrito with all the fervour of a Jack Russell around a rat’s neck. He saw it like this: poor Mexican food is still better than no Mexican food. Point taken and duly noted.
I still avoided Refried Beans though unless they were smothered in salsa, guacamole and the all important sour cream.
Some weeks ago, I thought I would treat Paul to his favourite dish and bought some mottled pink Pinto Beans. Suffice to say, they languished in the corner cupboard, the one with the ineffective revolving door that bows in the middle but is OK for holding all my other dried pulses, for quite a while until Paul started flicking through Mexico – The Beautiful Cookbook and pointed at Frijoles Refritos. “It’s funny how the Summer time always makes you crave Mexican food” he said. And he’s right. He and it seem to have a natural affinity with the outdoors, Paul clutching an ice cold cider in one hand and a stuffed taco in the other.
Everyone who is an aficionado of refried beans will have their own way of serving them: mounding them up on a plate and sprinkled with Queso Blanco, cosily smothered in a corn tortilla or given the cheese treatment in a Quesadilla.
But, whatever you do with your frijoles refrito, you must, of course, start with your humble Pinto Bean. And here is the recipe:
FRIJOLES REFRITE – serves 2-4 depending on stomach size (this dish easily doubles or quadruples too)
WARNING: DO NOT SALT THE BEANS BEFORE THEY COOKED – THEY WILL BECOME LIKE LITTLE PINK BULLETS AND YOUR FRIJOLES WILL BE DESASTROSO
For the initial cooking of the beans:
250g Dried Pinto Beans, soaked for 8 hours and drained Half a peeled Onion
Teaspoon Epazote (you could use Oregano at a pinch)
4 Chillis, traditionally they would be.....but a good flavoured spicy type is best
2 Tablespoons Lard (you could use vegetable oil for health purposes)
For the frying of the beans:
2 Tablespoons Lard (or vegetable oil)
The other half of the onion, cut into large chunks
Place the beans in more than enough water to cover them, you aiming for a good two inches over their heads. Add the lard or oil and the onion.
Bring to the boil, then turn down to a gentle simmer. Cook for about an hour or until nearly tender.
At this point, add the chillis, epazote and a little salt and pepper. Simmer for another 20 minutes or until totally tender.
In a heavy bottomed frying pan, melt the lard or oil and fry off the onion, taking care that it doesn’t burn. You are simply flavouring the oil and once the onion has softened, remove from the lard and discard.
Carefully pour half of the bean mixture, including the cooking liquor and any chillis and onions that come with it, into the lard. Take care as this will momentarily spit, the old water on oil trick.
Using a potato masher or the back of a fork, gently mash the beans into the onion scented lard, adding more from the pan until all used up.
Turn the heat up to medium high and cook until they have dried out to your desired consistency. Some prefer them creamier than others. Taste for seasoning and serve in your favourite way.
Pictures to follow as we are currently experiencing a slight photographic hiccup.