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
- Heat oil in a skillet and cook onion until starting to turn golden brown.
- Add cooked beans and mash beans with a potato masher while cooking over medium heat. Leave some pieces of bean for texture.
- 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.
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.