Dreams of Refried Beans

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.

I have not yet made it to Mexico, unless Albuquerque, New Mexico counts, when Paul and I spent twenty four discombobulating hours avoiding long haired panhandlers, jumping at the sounds of gunshots at midnight and wondering why a struggling 10 year old child would be carrying a large box of drugs into an elevator. The only culinary recollection I have from those twenty four hours was the late-night Daiquiri Ice from Baskin-Robbins. I also remember leaving the flaming crimson sunsets over the mesas as we drove at breakneck speed towards Texas, the next stop of our journey.
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.
Like making your own bread or marshmallows, making refried beans seems like it’s best left for the professionals. However, once you scrape beneath the recipe and get your hands dirty, it’s much easier than you think.
For one, the refried element of the dish is a misnomer. The beans are first simmered in water and lard, spiced up with some chillis (dried or fresh), then mashed into some onion-fragrant lard (yes, more lard) until a paste the colour and texture of pink adobe is achieved. There is no second frying and it is merely a misinterpretation of the Spanish language that has led to this common misconception. Refrito (as in Frijoles Refritos) literally means "well-fried" ("re" being used to exaggerate the importance of a word and "frito" meaning, of course, "to fry") and because the beans are "overcooked" in the lard to achieve a dry texture this name has been passed on for generations. It is easy to see how the confusion occured - re-fried / re-frito.

Dried Beans, notably the Pinto, have been part of the Mexican diet for hundreds of years and they are justly proud of this culinary heritage, the Frijoles and its accompanying dishes have sustained them culturally for years. A more thorough and excellently written history than I can provide can be found here.
Apart from being the Barbie Doll of the Legume world, this speckly pink, curvacious bean has an incredible flavour and texture. Unlike other beans that I have used, the Pinto Bean even emits a deeply savoury smell when soaking in water. And when cooked, they contort out of their designer skin to reveal their naked, ever so slightly mealy but mostly creamy body that was just made for re-frying.
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)

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.


Little Foodie said...

frijoles refrito, refritos, re-fried beans, fried for long time beans, whatever, whichever, whenever - I love them! Great post Freya. Amanda

Deborah said...

I grew up in New Mexico (Farmington) and was always afraid for my life the few times I went to Albuquerque - so I know what you are talking about!! I have actually been to Mexico a few times, but all tourist destinations, so I think the food I grew up on in New Mexico is probably more authentic!! I have had authentic refried beans before, but have never made them. Thanks for the recipe - this sounds like a great one!

Rebeca said...

Hi Freya,

My mother is Mexican and I think I must have frijoles in my blood: I could eat them every day. That said, I've never made them from scratch, unless mushing up some canned kidney beans and frying them with bacon counts.

I'll have to try your recipe!

Also, if you ever go back to Albuquerque, this is one culinary adventure you shouldn't miss: Sadie's. It's huge and loud and you might have to wait an hour to get your seat, but only five minutes to get your meal. Sounds like a nightmare right? But the food is seriously amazing. A great example of New Mexican cuisine.

sra said...

What a lovely piece of writing, Freya!

Joyce said...

Can never have enough Mexican food.
I'm a Rick Bayless fan and buy heirloom beans from Rancho Gordo.
I've learned a lot from both Rick and Steve. Simple foods, with fabulous flavor! Use those beans on a tostada or enchilada, too!

Callipygia said...

There truly is a world of difference between fabulous refried beans and horrible pasty ones. I remember how startled I was when I finally ate really good Mexican food. Sigh, maybe one day we'll make it down to Mexico- but this recipe will surely provide us with something to daydream over.

Sara said...

You are right - Mexican food and summer do go together. Last Saturday when the temperature hit 32'C we went out for Mexican! I refused to eat refried beans until I was in my 20's and now I love them. I'd eat them every day if Scott would let me.

Jerry said...

I hope you had a better experience in Texas than in New Mexico, I'd hate to think we let you down!

I've tried my hand at frijoles refritos in the past, but have never gotten the "perfect" bean yet. I'll have to give it another try here in the next few days.

You're absolutely right about salting beans on the first cook, regardless of the type you're making

Aimée said...

How funny, I'm chowing down on a quesadilla filled with refried beans right now. They are a staple in my house and we find they freeze pretty well, too. Great for last minute dinners.

Susan said...

Too bad you didn't stop at Sante Fe. You might have had an entirely different take of NM, picturesque, rather than picaresque.

Now, thanks to you, I have an entirely different take on that hideous slop they pass off as refried beans. I didn't know what to make of them. Excellent explanations and instructions.

Lynn said...

I love refried beans. Thanks for giving me such great directions on how to make them myself.

Anh said...

I tasted refried bean once, the canned version, and it wasn't so good. Must try yours!

Lydia said...

You must get to Mexico some day, for the food, the colors, the light, the music...but in the meantime, the books of Diana Kennedy are the most authentic Mexican cookbooks I can recommend.

Cynthia said...

I love refried beans. Instead of lard, I use bacon and I also add 1 single clove that when you taste the beans you know something is there but can't quite figure out what it is :)

Mallow said...

I LOVE refried beans and being mostly vegetarian, I eat them all the time. And yet I have never tried to make them...(?) You have inspired me!

Kirsten said...

What a great post!! I ADORE Mexican food and am so lucky that I could eat it every day (and do that almost) and it's SOOO good here in Arizona.

I will be trying this recipe - we are so lucky to be close to great beans all the time that I oddly haven't tried making my own.

Chubbypanda said...

Lol. I've been spoiled by living in Southern California, with all of its great Mexican food. What I really crave is some decent pub grub. I'd trade a whole bushel of beans for a good Kidney Pie, hold the steak.

katiez said...

Could I have some Huevos Rancheros with those? For breakfast, of course.
Kind of like the traditional English breakfast with a kick!

Culinary Cowgirl said...

Yes, you could leave it to the professionals...but aren't the homemade ones yummy?

Pip said...

I really like Mexican food (and had the opportunity to enjoy it in Mexico, too!) but never tried these beans! :-o I'm very good at making fajitas though...! ;)
Wonderful post! :))

joey said...

My husband is a HUGE fan of Mexican food! Thanks for sharing this :) Good Mexican food is hard to come by here...

wheresmymind said...

I dig TEX MEX! We want some pix! :D

Nora B. said...

Freya, your terrific sense of humour comes through so nicely in your writing. I never thought of making my own refried beans, because I actually don't mind the canned version (did I just say that out loud). I like Mexican all year round because I like spicy stuff. :-)

Kelly-Jane said...

Due to my chilli-wimp tendancies I've avoided Mexican food like the plague... their pretty silver jewellry one the other hand, but that's a differnet story ;)

I like the sound of this cookbook though - will have to go and check it out.

Kelly-Jane said...

P.S. Great post!

Toni said...

First of all, your writing is terrific - great word pictures and great humor! Also, I lived in New Mexico for 12 years, on the east side of the Sandia Mountains. Albuquerque was only 15 minutes away, but there was a mountain between town and me. Funny, but I never had a scary experience there. And I must second Rebeca's suggestion of Sadie's. She didn't mention that it's in a bowling alley. That, by itself, would be enough to keep away most people, don't you think? But this place is so good it deserves a try!

As for the refried, if I were making them, I'd leave out the lard. They wouldn't taste the same, it's true, but oh well. My arteries would be smiling at me, and that's enough for me!

Claude-Olivier said...

Waow, what a nice story and post...but now the problem is that I'm hungry...too bad ;-) I really love to read you in English...I read quite a lot of pappers in english everyday, but food and cooking sound better ;-)

Have a nice day

Truffle said...

What a beautifully written post and thank you for sharing such a wonderful recipe :)

tigerfish said...

Now I know where the name Frito Lay comes from :D
I don't dislike beans, but I'm still trying to make my taste buds like Mexican food.

Chef JP said...

This recipe sounds delicious! Sometimes when I make refried beans, I use some applewood smoked bacon which gives the beans a nice sweet contrast. chefjp

Anuhea said...

Great post, these are the ultimate Mexican side dish...and to know how to make them instead of cracking open a can...is refreshing!

kellypea said...

Totally excellent post -- writing, content, food. Ahhh... los frijoles son muy bueno -- or something like that. I love refried beans. And your story makes yours sound terrific!

sher said...

Ahhh! I adore refried beans. They are so much better if you make them yourself. I enjoyed reading your post so much. This shows how simple things, made properly can be the best thing in the world. Now I will be lusting after some frijoles all day! :):)

Laura said...

I havn't had decent Mexican food for so long. This recipe will get me started, so please can I have som more?

T.W. Barritt said...

Now, I know they don't come from a can, really, but that's probably the way I've eaten them the most. This is great information. I had no idea what this process was, and had some vague idea that the method might be day-old-beans refried! Happily corrected!

Homesick Texan said...

Wonderful post! May you travel to Mexico soon!

Sylvia said...

I love frijoles refritso ,but i don´t knew the recipe,now that I learn to do,maybe one day I will try your recipe

Adriana said...

hello! i grew up on refried beans, there was alwaya a pot of beans slowly simmering on the stove in my house. As a snack, my mom would give us a cup of the broth, with chopped onion, cilantro and a squeeze of lime. Heaven!

Anyway, lately my mom has been using peruvian beans instead of pinto, and they taste so much better!