Legumes can be a hedge fund against winter hunger. There is no better comfort food than the warm, earthy flavor and creamy texture of a well-prepared pot of beans. They embrace hearty warming soups, stews, and dips with gusto.
No culture does beans better than the Mexicans. When the Spaniards arrived in the New World, they discovered a large variety of new, unfamiliar edible plants, among them many new types of legumes. Mexico is the origin of most shell beans in the world, excluding broad or fava beans (North Africa and Asia), chickpeas (Middle-East), lentils (Greece), and black-eyed peas or cowpeas (West Africa). In Mexico beans are an essential part of cuisine—beloved by rich and poor—and served at every meal.
Whether they are black, brown, red and white; speckled, pea and canary; lima, kidney, black-eye, pinto or cranberry; beans which grow on vines, on branches or on the ground, many experts believe there exist over 200 different edible Mexican bean varieties. Others count only twenty improved varieties and about fifty native ones. At any rate, most archeologists think the bean plant’s cultivation began in Mexico around seven millennia ago. So valuable were beans that the Aztecs often asked for them as tribute payment.
Black and pinto beans are most associated with Mexican cooking in the United States, but in Mexico dried beans come in a delightful variety of flavors, shapes and colors: black or purple-mottled, deep or pale yellow, pink, mottled-pink, brown and white. Prized fresh shell beans (frijoles nuevos) arrive at the market still in their pods. Pinto beans are predominant in northern Mexico, pale yellow peruanos and pale purple flor de mayo in central Mexico, while black beans are the favorite south of Mexico City.
When you choose beans to pair with other dishes think of their flavor: black beans have an intense earthy flavor, pinto beans are creamy and mild; peruano, mayocoba or flor de mayo beans tend toward a sweeter, potatoey flavor. Look online for Mexican heirloom beans like Rebosero, Rosa de Castilla, Acoyote Negro and Rio Zape. Purchase beans from a busy Mexican grocer or from bulk sections. Look for shiny beans that smell fresh, not rancid.
Mexican cooks rarely soak their dried beans. Soaking may speed up cooking time and improve texture, but it doesn’t make much difference in digestibility and it can rob beans of flavor and color. (Eat beans often as Mexicans do and they will be easy to digest.)
Mexican cooks pick dry beans over and discard moldy ones, rinse well, cover with cold water and bring to a low simmer, partially covered, until tender, about 2 to 3 hours. Since beans absorb water through the small black spot on their sides, they can burst if cooked too quickly. Traditional Mexican cooks simmer beans slowly and long in a clay pot (de olla) with onion, lard and salt. Modern homes use a pressure cooker to save time. Black beans may additionally simmer with a sprig of fresh or dried epazote.
If, with local hard water, your beans never seem to achieve the creamy tenderness of canned, try soaking (and draining) or cooking 2 to 3 cups dry beans (1 pound) with a tablespoon of kosher salt. Contrary to what some cooks believe, salt does not toughen beans, rather the opposite: it tenderizes them, especially in hard water. However, dry beans cooked with tomatoes will toughen beyond redemption.
For every pound of beans (about 2-1/3 cups):
- Pick through beans thoroughly for moldy beans and stones or dirt and discard. Rinse beans very well and rub to remove as much of the dust or dirt clinging to them as possible. Drain.
- Pour beans into a heavy 4- to 6-quart saucepan and cover with 2- to 2-1/2 quarts cold water and, for more flavor and tenderness, 1 tablespoon kosher salt. Bring to a boil. (Soaking prevents beans from bursting, but does rob them of flavor—and, in the case of black beans, color.) Immediately lower heat to a simmer. Beans break if cooked on high heat, but if they’ll be mashed that may not be important.
- Optionally, stir in 1/2 cup diced onion (2 ounces).
- Cover or partially cover the pot and simmer beans until tender, 2 to 3 hours depending on the age of the beans—older beans need longer cooking. Test beans by tasting one—it should feel creamy and taste full-flavored.
- Season beans with salt if necessary, and simmer until completely soft, 15 minutes. Add 2 large sprigs epazote to black beans, and simmer 5 to 10 minutes. Remove and discard epazote. Beans will keep refrigerated up to 5 to 7 days. Reserve broth.
*Fresh chiles complement mild, light colored beans; deeper colored and flavored beans like negros, acoyotes, and rebozeros, work well with a dried, smokey chile like chipotle, guajillo or cascabel.
*Herbs and spices like epazote, cilantro stems or garlic will flavor the broth subtly.
*Always cook a large batch of beans. Portion them into meal-sized containers and freeze cooked beans plain, whole in their broth or refried up to six months.
In the Yucatan, cooks prepare beans (frijol colado) with three traditional textures according to use: aguado (watery), espeso (thick) and seco (dry). The cooking time and the amount of cooking liquid, water or chicken stock added to beans when they are puréed and strained determines their texture.
Aguado is served in a small bowl as an accompaniment to a meal, and eaten either as soup or drizzled onto meats or tacos.
Espeso is used for fillings and toppings for tostadas or panuchos (puffed, stuffed tortillas).
Seco is the Yucatecan version of refried beans, and served as an accompaniment to a meal.