A Recipe for Non-Egalitarian Beans

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You will see in a moment why I call them this.  First I present to you the ingredient list.  It is short, which ensures two things: there is little danger of boredom while reading it; and there are few enough ingredients such that leaving even one of them out might have drastic effects, a result for which I will claim no responsibility.  You have been warned.

1 ½ lbs. Pinto Beans

Salt, lots of it

A generous slice of salt-pork*

One large tomato, coarsely chopped

One small onion, very coarsely chopped, large pieces or rings are better

One half bell pepper, thinly sliced

One or two jalapenos, sliced

Garlic **

Cumin

Cilantro***

Chili pepper

Black pepper

*This may be omitted at your own peril, though I personally find it inconceivable.  The heart of this dish’s taste is its pork flavoring.  You may be forced, for Kosher considerations, to use a pork flavoring substitute.  You will not need very much as the salt pork is generally removed halfway through the process.

**There are multiple strategies to using garlic: a) use garlic powder as a cheap and easy alternative…I do this at times;  b) use a couple of cloves of garlic, peeled, and remove them before you serve the beans; or c) throw in a small amount of minced garlic and consider it part of the meal.  It’s up to you.

***This is also known as Chinese parsley.  There is no substitute for fresh cilantro.  If no fresh cilantro is available, you will just have to use dried but I don’t really know what that would do.  It is essentially an herb that adds a fresh flavor to the beans and cools the edge of any hotness introduced by the jalapenos.  If you do not live where this herb is readily available, then I sincerely hope you know where the local farmer’s market is.

Step 1:  Sort and wash the beans

We are no egalitarians here.  The weak, the crippled, the halt and the deformed must go; even the beans of unusual size.  Spare none of these when sorting the beans, coldly, methodically, and without mercy.  Take only the unblemished ones (generally 98% of them).  The reason for this is that they only get worse in the cooking, so getting rid of the imperfections makes for a more presentable dish down the road.  Then wash the beans in a colander with warm water by hand.  The truth about beans is that they are dirtier than they look.  You will discover this if you cook them without washing them.  They do not need to be soaked overnight; I never do this and don’t know anyone who does.

Step 2:  Start them up!

Roughly 5 quarts of water ought to do this.  You can bring the water to a gentle boil first and then dump the beans in.  Bring it back to a boil and cover with a well-fitted lid.  You will need to lower the heat, just enough to keep a very gentle boil for the next hour while stirring occasionally.  Adding a generous amount of salt at this time is advisable.  Beans are like potatoes; they absorb a lot of salt.  It is almost impossible to accidentally over-salt beans.

Step 3:  Order

I like to cook with order.  You probably do as well.  Generally I have cooked the beans by themselves up to this point with only salt added.  Now I add the salt pork and cook for an additional hour and a half.  Remember to maintain only a gentle boil while covered.  Unless you have a see-through lid, this can only be ascertained in the first few moments after you open the lid, so good luck with that.

We are now two and half hours into our beans.  They are smelling okay but there is something missing.  Seasoning.  At this point remove the salt pork.  Add more table salt, some black pepper, a decent amount of chili powder, a smaller amount of cumin, the garlic powder (or whatever you scrounged up), and the jalapenos.

Cook one hour.  I feel compelled to remind you that only a gentle little boil is permitted.  Something like two or three little steady bubble streams would be good.

Now add tomato, onions, bell peppers, and fresh cilantro.  I sincerely hope you are very careful when chopping up your vegetables.  It is good to use a freshly sharpened knife for best control.  (I wouldn’t want you to lose a finger, which might not be so bad if you happened to already have six fingers on your hand.)  Cook for one more hour. Gently boil, gently boil, gently boil! Covered.

Why gently?  It just has to be like that.

I had a roommate in college who made beans in two hours under much higher heat than I would ever have used, using a pressure cooker of some kind.  They were awful and I let him know it.  He said, “Well that’s how my mom makes beans.”

And I said, “Well your mama don’t know how to make beans!”

Let me tell you, them is fightin’ words.  Feeling brave, I also told him that the Wolf-brand chili schlock that his mother calls “enchiladas” is a joke and that MY mama said only lazy people cook enchiladas in a casserole.

Well… It didn’t quite come to blows and I resolved to afterwards not burst any more of his bubbles (except for pointing out that his Camaro with a 6-cylinder engine and automatic transmission was not a real sports car, technically, and thus there was no reason for him to have his hand on the gear shift all the time; and that putting on a leather duster, cowboy hat, jeans, boots and a giant buckle didn’t make him a cowboy, especially since he’d never worked a day in his life on a ranch….but really I think he already knew that.)

Anyway, my mama said it has to be a gentle boil.  Pinto beans are delicate and the texture that is created by this method is wonderful.

By the way, strictly speaking this is not a soup, but it will eat like one.  It is generally served in a bowl.  You can put bits of tortilla chips if you like, or add salsa to make it spicier, or add grated cheese (mild cheddar or monterry jack).  It goes well with rice.

Extra: to make refried beans (remarkably easy and a perfect compliment to over-easy eggs for breakfast), you simply heat up a little vegetable oil in a saucepan, add beans with enough of the broth to barely cover, none of the vegetables, and heat to a medium boil.  Smash thoroughly with a smashing utensil (I prefer the bent wire kind as opposed to the perforated plate) and then simmer gently until it thickens.  Refried pinto beans are unbeatable when they are homemade.  That stuff in the can can stay there. (I like setting off grammer-check.)  Use them as a side dish, for breakfast burritos, chalupas, tortas (a large French roll split in the middle and layered with hot refried beans, chopped seasoned meat, mashed avacado, sour cream, chopped tomato and lettuce, with salsa to taste), or wherever you like.  Be careful not to let them dry out when refrying them; you will quickly discover the right consistency for the various applications you wish to make.

You are done.  Taste broth for correct saltiness.  Adding salt to a bowl of beans is a no -no, so get it right while it’s in the pot.  Cooking times vary.  Failure to boil in the first hour will mean longer cooking time and perhaps damaged beans.  Too much boiling at any point means beans at the
bottom may burn or disintegrate.  There are many hazards to cooking beans.  But the rule for Mexican cooking is to cook with love, not lunacy.  I have an aunt who does the latter, but that is another story…

What’s a Motto with me?

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My motto is this: “Nothing worth doing is easy.” You may have heard its variation: if it was easy, everybody would be doing it. Whether it is an endeavor like the pursuit of a degree which so many of us here share, or the fulfillment of an individual goal or personal dream, like owning a business or climbing the corporate ladder; there is no substitute for effort. For truly worthwhile achievements, shortcuts are illusions; we must each steel our minds to this fact. To reach your goals, be prepared to give not only your best efforts, but consistent and unfailing efforts. Someone once said that success is the result of a thousand little right decisions made day in and day out. I believe that.

Curveballs

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This is a sort of stream-of-consciousness bit.  Targeted age group is 8 to 12 year olds.  Appeals mostly to boys but might be interesting to many girls.  Word count target was originally 500, but I expanded it to 600 when I went from first person to third person.  The inspiration for the title I owe to my sister-in-law Pam; I like the way she writes titles.  Tell me what you think.

CURVEBALLS, SLIDERS & SNACKS

           Tristan can hear the distant cheering.  Under the blistering South Texas sun, just a couple blocks from his house, stands the American Little League Ballpark.  Faded white paint peels from the plywood boards of the field house.  Only the Coca-Cola sign looks new. 

          “Hey batter batter, hey batter batter, swing batter!”

          Before he reaches its rusty gates, he can hear the droning chatter of the outfielders.  They hunker into position, decked out in crisp polyester uniforms, their eyes drilling holes into the batter while hoping that their racket will prevent him from drilling one into the outfield; or worse, over the fence.

           Tristan doesn’t actually play baseball.  His arm in a sling, he hangs around the four-foot baseline fences waiting for something to happen.  The crack of the bat might send that shiny white orb spinning into foul territory, out of play.

          “Foul ball!  Return that ball to the concession stand for a free snow cone!”

          The tin can PA announcement is his cue.  In that mad rush for the wayward ball, Tristan knows the golden rule of foul balls: slide, don’t dive.  Divers taste the salty clay, feel it stinging their eyes, smell the sun-baked mud off of someone else’s cleats.  Savvy sliders are rewarded with the syrupy sweetness of snow cones, their lips turning red from the strawberry, or blue from the fruity coconut.

          Tristan always slides.  And this time he is the first one there.  His patience has paid off and he cups the ball between his cast and his side.  He sees the sweaty faces of the other boys, soured in midstride.  He makes up his mind: today it will be coconut.

            Upon turning that stray ball in, he is reminded of the real reason they all hang out at the ballpark: the snack stand.  Housed in back of the rickety grandstand, below the press box, is the finest collection of teeth-rotting tasties a boy could want. Pony-tailed girls in team shirts hold Lik-A-Maid packets in their dark olive hands while whining grimy little brothers clamor for a taste of grape, cherry, or sour lime sugar. Cotton candy scents waft in the slight breeze. Briny-faced boys munch on dollar dill pickles. Their slurping almost makes Tristan pucker.  But then the spicy smells of Frito pies catch his attention. A team mom is loaded down with six of those crunchy concoctions of corn chips and queso , steaming chili sauce lathered on top.  Nearby, two brothers grapple over a greasy box of buttery popcorn, each balancing his bubbling cup of Coke.

            And sooner or later, something lands on the ground.  A white wrapper; an unused dipping stick; crumbled fritos.  Half of a bubbling Coke. 

            Then another noisy chattering begins, piercing and squawking.  The wily white seagulls that have made the trip from the J.C. Elliot landfill have been waiting for wandering morsels.  Vultures of the sea, they are ravenous.  Feathers fly and beaks flicker and bicker over the litter on the grass.  Tristan knows better than to feed them anything.  When all the people go home, they will go home.

            When the clanking of the bat ceases, when the chattering dies down; Tristan trudges home, his tummy full.  Maybe he’ll cut through the alley and outrun Bear, the bushy beast-hound who guards his favorite shortcut to the ballpark.  Maybe he’ll just take the longer route under the setting sun, take in the cooling breeze under the purpling sky.  Yes, the long way today.  Anyway, he still has half a bag of Laffy Taffy to finish.

© 2009 Daniel Alegria