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
*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…