I didn’t grow up in a bean-eating family. Our table was all about meat, mainly prime. When I became a vegetarian at age 21, I explained to people that there was no ideology behind my dietary shift — I’d simply had my quota of meat.
Even lentils were outside our ken. I remember eating my first bowl of lentil soup at the home of a friend when I was about 8 years old, and immediately asking my mother if we could have that. I loved the flavor of the lentils, the bay leaf-scented broth, and especially the sliced frankfurters that — I’m assuming it was Campbell’s — put in their canned lentil soup.
But I simply can’t remember eating a bowl of beans until I began working with migrant farm workers in Michigan in the late ’60s, eventually migrating with them back to the Rio Grande Valley in south Texas, where I lived from 1969 to 1971. There, and across the border in Mexico, I learned a lot about beans. I learned to cook them with lots of garlic, onion and cilantro, to refry them in a pan of hot melted lard and to mash them in the pan with a potato masher. My friend Alma Canales always added a few strips of bacon to her pot of pintos.
The day after I arrived in the valley, having driven a van straight from Ohio to Mission, Texas, with my fellow Head Start teachers, we crossed the border to return our colleague Juana to her mother’s humble, one-room home in Rio Bravo, a dusty village south of the Rio Grande. Juana’s mother graciously offered us beans from the earthenware bean pot that was sitting on her little stove. But I had just observed a mouse running up the side of that pot. It ran down and disappeared behind the stove. I politely refused; I never learned how Juana’s mother cooked her beans.
In those days, there were no drug cartels wreaking havoc in the border towns along the Rio Grande. If we were afraid of anything, it was the Texas Rangers on the north side of the river who didn’t hold much sway with long-haired gringos or Mexican American activists. We crossed over to Reynosa from McAllen on a weekly, if not daily, basis, to shop for produce in the markets and to eat. On Saturday afternoons, we’d go to El Reye de Cabrito, a famous cabrito place on one of the main plazas. The goats were barbecued on huge skewers and served up in big portions with lots of freshly made flour tortillas. To be honest, I never developed much of a taste for the goat; it was a bit gamey for my palate. But the pinto beans that came first, frijoles a la olla, beans in broth, became my touchstone for what a great pot of beans should be.
What made those pintos memorable was their aromatic broth. The beans were simmered with no shortage of onions, garlic, and cilantro, lots of cilantro added at different intervals during the cooking. The other herb was epazote, the Mexican herb that seems to tie all of the flavors and aromas together in a simmering pot of beans.
Black beans versus pintos
In northern Mexico, pintos are traditional, whereas black beans are the staple of southern Mexico, where I eventually began to spend a lot of time. I use the same seasonings for both. Black beans yield a richer, thicker, inky-black broth, but pintos yield a broth that is no less comforting.
Cooks are given a lot of conflicting information about the right way to cook beans. Is soaking essential? Many, including Rick Bayless, say no. I find that it depends on the bean. I still prefer to soak certain types — black beans and chickpeas, in particular — because I’ve found that the cooking is more even and the cooked beans have a plusher texture. If you do soak black beans or pintos, do not throw out the soaking water as you’ll lose valuable nutrients and rich color.
I was taught never to add salt until the end of cooking, but I think that is probably a wive’s tale. You have to add the salt at least halfway through for the beans to absorb enough to be tasty, and an under-salted pot of beans is a dull pot of beans. Habit in cooking can die hard, so I usually don’t add the salt right away but let the beans simmer for about thirty minutes first. I have no practical explanation for why I do it this way.
Epazote is commonly used in Mexico to season beans, but it’s not too easy to find in the States (though it grows like a weed). In Oaxaca, the black beans are particularly delicious because cooks add dried avocado leaves to the pot. These too are difficult to come by. My standard recipe relies on onion, garlic and cilantro only, with other aromatics optional. Bring your beans slowly to a boil and don’t boil them hard, or they’ll break apart before they soften into the luxurious pillows of flavor and texture that properly cooked beans should be.
These will keep for 3 to 4 days in the refrigerator and freeze well. They are best made a day ahead.
- Soak the beans in the water for at least 4 hours. If they will be soaking for a long time in warm weather, put them in the refrigerator.
- Heat the oil over medium heat in a large, heavy soup pot or Dutch oven (earthenware set over a flame tamer is great) and add the onion. Cook, stirring, until it begins to soften, about 3 minutes, and add half the garlic. Cook, stirring, until fragrant, 30 seconds to a minute, and add the beans and soaking water. They should be covered by at least 2 inches of water. Add another cup of water if they are not, and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Watch closely so that once the beans reach the boiling point you can turn them down quickly so they won’t boil hard and fall apart. Reduce the heat to low and skim off any foam. Add the epazote, cover and simmer 30 minutes. Add salt to taste — 2 to 3 teaspoons or more — and simmer for another 30 minutes.
- Add the remaining garlic and half the cilantro. Continue to simmer another hour, until the beans are quite soft and the broth is thick and fragrant. Stir in the remaining cilantro. Taste. Is there enough salt? Does it need more garlic? Add if necessary. Let sit overnight in the refrigerator for the best flavor.
Photo: Silky, long-simmered black beans. Credit: Martha Rose Shulman