Frijoles negros — black beans with epazote, whole and refried

A Classic Mexican Recipe
Easy Recipe for Frijoles Refritos Negros — Refried Black Beans
Seasoned with Epazote

For such a basic, simple food, a bowl of black beans, known to some as turtle beans, can be so satisfying, warming the tummy and the soul. A simmering pot of beans means home and hearth to me. Left-over beans can later reappear as refried beans, refritos. Mexicans love beans with every meal, from breakfast to dinner. FrijolesRefritos are often served with a plate of Huevos Rancheros or Huevos Mexicanos. For dinner, beans are a course unto themselves, served in small earthenware dishes in their broth before dessert makes its appearance. 

The variety of beans available here is awesome. Peruano, flor de may, bayo, negro. Flor de junio, ayacote y pinto. The litany is starting to sound like a line from a song. It could be set to music, no pun intended. The weather has been cloudy and cool lately, really wonderful. The unexpected coolness helps us temporarily forget the sear of summer. Northerners would laugh to hear me call today’s weather cool at all, but everything is relative, right? A pot of beans bubbling on the stove helps me hold to the illusion that this is really winter.

Simple Black Beans

  • 1 lb. (1/2 kilo) black beans
  • 2 quarts  (2 liters) hot water
  • 1/4  onion, sliced or chopped
  • 2 teaspoons sea salt
  • 2 sprigs of fresh epazote, if available
  • Prepare the beans by first picking through them to remove any bits of dirt, plant matter or little stones. Using a colander, rinse under running water.
  • When clean and rinsed, put the beans in a large pan or dish to soak in very warm water for 18 hours. This removes much of the phytic acid* which interferes with the absorption of calcium and other minerals.
  • Cook the beans until almost tender, about two hours or so.
  • Just before the beans are done, add about two teaspoons of salt or to taste, and fresh epazote if you are fortunate enough to find this herb. Continue cooking until beans are tender. Eat as is with the bean broth, or mash into refritos.

Epazote, also known in English as wormseed or Mexican tea, is mostly found in central and southern Mexico, and is used to season beans, quesadillas and soups. It can also be found in the eastern U.S., where it is considered a bothersome weed. I have read that it grows in Central Park in New York City.

Years ago, while traveling across Mexico, we stopped at a large camp along a river to park our travel trailer for a week’s stay. Also staying there were a couple of manual laborers who worked for the park’s owner.  Every morning, they would cook a pot of beans. When the beans were tender, they would continue to cook them until the beans were almost completely dry. In this form, they stayed fresh until the workers returned in the afternoon. They would then add water to rehydrate the beans for their meal. Such is the ingenuity of  people who live without refrigeration.

Refritos or Refried Beans

  • 4 cups cooked black beans, including broth
  • 4-6 tablespoons lard or vegetable oil
  • 1/3 cup finely chopped onion
  • dry, crumbly cheese, such as cotija seco or ranchero seco
  1. Heat oil in a skillet and cook onion until starting to turn golden brown.
  2. Add cooked beans and mash beans with a potato masher while cooking over medium heat. Leave some pieces of bean for texture.
  3. When the beans begin to dry out along the edges and are heated thoroughly, turn out onto a plate and garnish with a dry, salty cheese, such as queso añejo or queso seco.

Frijoles refritos can be used as a filling for quesadillas or as a topping for tostadas. Refrito means “very well fried”, not fried again.

Notes:

To soak the beans for 18 hours, I put them in a stainless steel bowl of hot water, covered it with a plate, wrapped the bowl in a towel, and set it in a cardboard box covered with another towel. This maintained the water temperature, with my rewarming the  bowl of beans and water one time, before I went to bed.

I use a rustic, low-fired earthenware bean pot, but you can use any heavy pot or a pressure cooker.  Mexican cooks claim the beans taste much better when cooked in earthenware. I like to think that by using one, I add my name to a long roster of traditional cooks, plus, doesn’t this pot look elegant?

Fresh lard, prized by Mexican cooks for the flavor it imparts, is the fat of choice for making refritos. While we may blanch at this, being thoroughly indoctrinated against all things with animal fat, lard does add an incomparable taste.  As I do not eat pork, I used olive oil for my refritos, and they were very good.

*To learn more about removing phytic acid from beans and grains, read how to soak beans.

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A duo of salad dressings — tropical mango and Asian mango vinaigrettes



Our friends, Richard and Deborah, host the most fantastic Sunday potlucks at their beach-side home. Their incredible entrées include Stuffed Pork Loin with prunes, apricots and cranberries, Wasabi Baked Salmon, Eggplant Lasagna, Braised Lamb Shoulder, Chateaubriand, and Roast Turkey with bagel stuffing. Guests rise to the occasion and bring sliced, home-grown heirloom tomatoes, home-baked breads, beet salad, mango pie and chocolate cake (from Pie in the Sky bakery) and other delectable dishes. One Sunday, Deborah mixed up an inspired salad dressing, Mango Vinaigrette, and I took note. Its simplicity belies the complex flavors of tropical fruit combined with balsamic vinegar.

Tropical Mango Vinaigrette

  • 1 part mango nectar
  • 1 part balsamic vinegar
  • 1 part olive oil
  • salt and pepper to taste

Shake all ingredients vigorously in a small jar with a tightly fitting lid. Use immediately or refrigerate.


We are fortunate to live in a part of Mexico where mangoes are grown. Once we answered our door to find two small children with a wheelbarrow of freshly picked mangoes, selling them for about the equivalent of a nickel a pound.  It was the most beautiful wheelbarrow I have ever seen. We bought enough mangoes to fill our food dehydrator, and enjoyed snacking on dried mango strips for months to come. Although it is only January, I can see the mango trees around our town coming into bloom. I’m already looking forward to this summer’s harvest.

Inspired by this tropical dressing, Russ suggested an Asian version for his favorite cole slaw. We put this one together in a matter of minutes.

Asian Mango Vinaigrette

  • 2 parts mango nectar
  • 2 parts rice wine vinegar
  • 1 part toasted sesame oil
  • 1 part untoasted sesame oil
  • cracked black pepper
  • soy sauce or tamari to taste
  • freshly grated ginger to taste

Toss with thinly sliced cabbage, red onion and grated carrot. Garnish with chopped fresh cilantro and a sprinkle of black sesame seeds. This salad benefits from sitting at room temperature for an hour before being served.

Any tropical fruit juice could be used instead of mango. How about guava, or pineapple, or even passion fruit vinaigrette?

Squash Blossom Quesadillas for Lunch, or How to Eat Flowers

A Classic Mexican Recipe
Easy Recipe for Mexican quesadillas with
squash blossoms — flor de calabaza– and poblano chile

The other day at the grocery store I saw the freshest squash blossom flowers, known in Spanish as Flor de Calabaza. I bought a small bunch of the golden blooms, remembering that the classic treatment in Mexico for squash blossoms is as a filling in quesadillas. Quesadillas are flour or corn tortillas with a variety of fillings, including cheese, usually Oaxaca String Cheese. Squash blossom quesadillas are one of Mexico’s gift to the world.

This is another dish for which it is hard to give a recipe. It’s as easy as making a sandwich, and, indeed, this could be called one of the sandwiches of Mexico. Here is the simple recipe: take two tortillas, top one with sautéed vegetables, then with thinly sliced or grated cheese. Place the second tortilla on top, and cook in a hot pan until the cheese is melted. That’s it.

I often make quesadillas using left-over vegetables from dinner the day before — creamed spinach, steamed beet greens, sautéed yellow squash with onion. The vegetable list is endless. The cheese list is close to endless. While the true Mexicano may blanch, there’s no reason that Swiss cheese or cheddar, or any cheese you have on hand, could not be used.  When I’m in a quesadilla mood, I have been known to rummage through the fridge, pulling out left-over brown rice, shredded roast chicken breast, fresh spinach leaves, sliced mushrooms. Quesadillas are a good thing to make when you clean out the fridge, akin to making clean-the-fridge soup. If you use squash blossoms, keep in mind that they have a delicate flavor that is easily overwhelmed by more strongly flavored  ingredients. For squash blossom quesadillas, the ingredient list is short.

Squash blossoms are common in Mexican markets in the interior of the country, although I don’t see them very often in the coastal area where I live. One day, a man came to our gate selling a bag of beautiful, fresh blossoms. The bag was the size of a small pillow, and I bought all he had for about three dollars. It was a culinary treasure, to be enjoyed in quesadillas, scrambled eggs and stuffed with cheese. The flower color varies from bright yellow to pumpkin orange. If I could bear not to eat them all, they would make an interesting floral arrangement in a vase on the kitchen counter. I’ll have to buy extra next time, just to enjoy them visually.

Squash Blossom Quesadillas

  • A handful of squash blossoms, de-stemmed and chopped
  • Sliced onion
  • Minced garlic
  • Roasted poblano chiles, cut into strips
  • Sliced Oaxaca cheese
  • Corn or flour tortillas
  • Fresh cilantro for garnish
  • Roast poblano chiles and cut into strips. (Refer to my past post  Chiles en Nogada if you need a refresher course on how to roast chiles.) Set aside.

    In Mexico, strips of roasted poblano chiles cooked with onion are called rajas.

    Sauté chopped squash blossoms with some sliced onion and minced garlic in a bit of olive oil.

    Lightly oil a griddle with vegetable oil and heat until medium hot. Place tortillas on griddle; divide squash blossoms, poblano strips and cheese among tortillas.

    Top each quesadilla with another tortilla and cook until cheese is melted and tortillas begin to have brown, toasty spots. Cut in halves or quarters, garnish with fresh cilantro and serve with fresh salsa. You may want to enjoy your squash blossom quesadillas with a cold, Mexican beer, such as Pacifico or Corona.


    Viva México !

    Nobby Apple Cake

    I always bake a special cake for my mother’s birthday, even though she and I live far apart and won’t be together that day. Usually I bake a carrot cake, using the recipe she gave me almost twenty years ago. This time, I tried the apple cake she has been raving about. It is called Nobby Apple Cake, and recipes for it are all over the internet, each with its own variation, including a spelling variation of “knobby.”

    My variation is Whole Wheat Nobby Apple Cake. If you have been reading my baking recipes, you know by now that I favor less sugar in desserts, as well as exchanging white flour with whole wheat flour. Ever since I read that paste for school crafts is made with white flour and water, I’ve cast a wary eye at white flour in recipes. I use white flour for special occasion cakes when appearance can trump nutrition, but I prefer whole wheat flour for every-day baking. My family and friends love my cakes and other desserts. Often, they don’t realize they are eating whole wheat flour and are surprised when I tell them. This has given me confidence to carry on with whole wheat exchanges.

    While fuji or gala apples are recommended for baking, I used small red delicious apples. This time of year, trucks go through the streets, announcing over their tinny loud speakers, “Manzanas de Chihuahau!” The small apples are sometimes a little wormy, which I prefer. The worm holes are easily trimmed out, and mean, I hope, that the apples were not sprayed. I’ll take a few apple worms over pesticides any day.

    Nobby Apple Cake

  • 1 cup sifted whole wheat flour (4.5 oz./125 grams)
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon grated nutmeg
  • 1/2 cup superfine sugar (3.5 oz./100 grams)
  • 1/2 stick soft butter (4 tablespoons/2 oz./56 grams)
  • 2 eggs, room temperature
  • 2 teaspoon vanilla
  • 3 cups apples, peeled and diced (about 3 cups/18 oz./520 grams)
  • 1/2 cup chopped pecans/walnuts (2 oz./60 grams)
  • 1/2 cup raisins or chopped dates (2.5 oz./70 grams) softened in 2 teaspoons warm rum
    1. Pre-heat oven to 350 deg. F (180 C). Butter and flour 9″ (228 mm.) round cake pan or a small tube pan, using buttered parchment paper in bottom of pan for fool-proof removal of cake.
    2. Mix the dry ingredients (flour through sugar) in the mixing bowl for 30 seconds to blend.
    3. Add the butter and mix on low speed until evenly blended; mix on medium speed for 1 1/2 minutes to aerate batter.
    4. Add the beaten egg and vanilla in three parts, beating on medium speed 30 seconds with each addition.
    5. Fold in apples, nuts and raisins. Spoon into prepared pan and level top.
    6. Bake for 35 minutes, or until top of cake begins to lightly brown. Sides should pull away from the pan after cake is removed from oven. Cool in pan for 10 minutes. Invert onto a cake rack and cool completely.
    7. Dust with powdered sugar and serve with whipped cream or ice cream.

    Notes:

    This recipe follows the mixing procedure used by Rose Levy Beranbaum in her cakebooks, The Cake Bible and Rose’es Heavenly Cakes, the best cakebooks I know of.

    If you use whole wheat flour, sift it first to remove the bran and save it for the next time you bake bread or muffins. If using all whole wheat is too much of a change for you, try using half whole wheat and half white flour, something I sometimes do when I want a special cake that is extra tender.

    If you don’t have superfine sugar, process regular sugar in a food processor for three minutes until fine.

    Washington state apples have shown dangerous levels of pesticides in the past. Tests found that there were enough chemicals on half an apple to exceed safe levels if eaten by a small child. Buy and eat organic.

    More Reading:

    Banned Pesticides Found on Apples

    Cover of "The Cake Bible"
    Cover of The Cake Bible

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    New "My Weigh" Kitchen Scale — How Did I Ever Bake Without It?

    Recommendation for My Weigh Kitchen Scale

    After thirty years of using a wall-mounted mechanical scale, I finally got a new kitchen scale. The old one did its job, but had limits. I couldn’t use a large container on it, as it was mounted on the wall, it didn’t have a tare function, and it needed to be constantly adjusted. The new scale, a KD-8000 made by My Weigh, has a digital display projected in front of the platform so that it can accommodate a large bowl. The tare function is great — you simply put your bowl or pan on the platform, press Tare, and the display goes back to zero. It weighs up to eight kilos (also weighs in pounds and ounces), and has a percentage function, something that is very useful for bread bakers, who can now let the scale determine the exact percentage of flour to water, instead of having to resort to higher math. If you don’t need this function, the KD-7000 model, which weighs up to seven kilos, will work just as well.

    A removable plastic shield keeps flour and other spills off the keypad, and three soft plastic disposable keyboard covers are included. Like the new Beater Blade for my Kitchen Aid standing mixer, I wonder how I got along without the KD-8000 scale for so long.

    Many home bakers still work without scales. This is somewhat understandable, as so many cookbooks don’t give measurements by weight. But for those recipes that do specify weight, the results are so much more dependable and consistent. I can’t count the times I have read comments on a forum about how the writer followed a recipe exactly, but ended up with overly dry, or too wet, cake or bread. Of course they are frustrated and will never try the recipe again. Often, the problem is with the system of measuring. One cup of flour can weigh between four and six ounces. The upper measurement is 50% greater than the lower. No wonder so many cake recipes fail!

    Other reliable scales are made by Oxo and A&D.

    If you are looking for baking books that give measurements by weight, check out The Cake Bible and The Bread Bible by Rose Levy Beranbaum. I highly recommend them.

    To try out my new scale, I made Bran Muffins. Even if you don’t have a kitchen scale, I hope you make these muffins. And I hope you consider buying this essential tool for your kitchen.