At a time of great uncertainty, good food is a comfort.
Ideally, comfort food should be easy to make, easily accessible, and good for us. For me, a well-made bowl of pinto beans fits that description. They’re satisfying, show up on every plate of Mexican or New Mexican food, and are usually found in every market. But being so ubiquitous, perhaps we’ve taken the humble pinto bean for granted. We can elevate it by selecting the best beans we can find and giving them attentive preparation.
Beans have been a foundational food for several millennia. As a New World crop, a staple of Native people from the Anasazi to modern pueblos, beans that adjust to our high desert climate — like the pinto — have been easily grown and stored. They provide a good source of protein, fiber, and minerals like potassium, iron, thiamine, and magnesium. They are easily rehydrated and portable.
A stash of dry beans guarantees nutritious food even if the sky is truly falling. The first sign I saw that folks were feeling desperate were the empty bean bins at La Montañita Co-op Food Market and Whole Foods Market. The beans I planned to buy at the co-op were under $2 a pound, but I was feeling a little desperate myself at the prospect of a worldwide shortage on beans.
But at that price, I felt a little desperate myself. So I went home and ordered a box of beans from Rancho Gordo at about $7 a pound. Even if they seemed ridiculously expensive, a pound of beans makes six bowls and will fill lots of burritos, tacos, and tostadas.
I learned to love beans growing up. My mother made rice and beans regularly, calling them blancos y negros. My paternal grandfather was a bean farmer, driving all over Northern New Mexico, selling pinto beans out of the back of a buckboard pulled by a team of mules. Later he drove a Ford truck, selling beans by the coffee can or by the 100-pound sack. He told me that some of his best years were during the Depression, and I always assumed that he did well because his cheap crop sold well. However, many of the people in those parts who lived through it have told me they never noticed that there was a Depression because they had always lived a simple life.
To make the best pot of beans, the first step is finding fresh beans. Locally raised organic and conventional pinto beans are usually available at the co-op and farmers’ markets in season. Supermarket beans are the most affordable and have their place, but what they’re selling can be last year’s beans, which take longer to cook and turn darker when they cook. Rancho Gordo’s beans range from heritage beans like Good Mother Stallard and Royal Corona to well-known beans like garbanzos and French lentils to obscure landrace beans from Mexico like Ojo de Cabra and pinquitos. Through their Xoxoc project, they support small farmers by buying the traditional crops they raise directly from them, thus preserving seeds that are in danger of dying out.
The quality and freshness of beans matters, and when it comes to pintos, which are wonderful plain with just a little salt, a locally raised organic pot of beans can be a revelation. As the Rancho Gordo website says, “If you’ve been served supermarket pintos all your life, you are in for a pleasant surprise.” I would add that New Mexican supermarkets often carry beans from southern Colorado, which are fine, but we don’t have to look far or pay much more to find a superior bean in Santa Fe or Albuquerque.
As we face a time of uncertain finances, beans are a go-to, one of the cheapest sources of protein and carbohydrates available. If you have never understood the charm of beans — or if the idea of cooking scares the bejesus out of you, or if you’ve just never made a successful pot of beans in spite of trying — have no fear. I’m going to give you the very simple techniques needed to produce perhaps the most delicious beans you’ve ever eaten. Once you have the beans made, you’ll have a lots of bowls of beans that can be eaten alone; topped with salsa, cheese, and avocado; or added to other foods. Pintos make a smooth and creamy bean soup just by adding some of the optional ingredients, blending them up, and perhaps stirring in a splash of cream.
The trick to making delicious, perfectly soft beans is persistence and patience. You have to be more stubborn than the beans are hard. By adding water as needed and cooking them down, you can make as thick and saucy as you like. Be assured, as long as you cook them long enough without scorching them, it’s easy to be successful making beans. ◀
General instructions for cooking beans
Before cooking, put beans in a tray or jelly roll pan and pick through them carefully for small stones, then rinse thoroughly in a colander to remove dirt.
Once beans have cooked for a while, test for tenderness by biting one. It should be soft without being mushy.
Beans may be made easily in a slow cooker, but if they are left to cook overnight or all day without monitoring, they can get too mushy. In which case, make refried beans.
Once beans are tender, they can be held on low heat for a long time. Be sure to check and add water as needed.
Serve hot, or let cool and refrigerate. They will keep for three days covered in the refrigerator and freeze well.
2 cups pinto (or other beans)
Half an onion, peeled
2 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
1½ tsp. salt, or to taste
Chopped salt pork, bacon, or ham
1-2 chopped chipotle chiles
1-2 chopped jalapeño peppers, fresh or pickled
A little ground cumin
1-2 bay leaves
Beans in a pressure cooker or instant pot
A very good way to soften up beans is to pressure cook them. When tender simmer for 15 to 20 minutes more with the lid off to remove any pressure cooker taste.
Put the beans in the cooker and fill it up two-thirds of the way with water. Bring to pressure and cook for 20 minutes. Vent steam and check beans for tenderness. If they’re not done, add more water if needed and half the salt, return to pressure, and cook for 10 more minutes. The beans should be tender at this point, but if not, repeat pressure cooking for another 10 minutes. When the beans are tender, add the rest of the salt and more water if needed. Simmer with the lid off for a minimum of 20 minutes, longer for a thicker broth. Add more salt if needed.
If you have time, soak beans overnight and drain before cooking.
Place the beans in a lidded soup pot with onion and garlic and enough water to cover by 1½ inches. Bring to a boil, then cover and turn to lowest setting. Cook for 2-3 hours, stirring occasionally, adding water as needed, and checking for tenderness. When they’re just barely tender but still a little al dente, stir in half the salt. The bean broth should taste a little salty; if it doesn’t, add more salt. Continue cooking for a total of 5-7 hours, adding water and salt as needed to maintain the desired level of salt in the beans. Cook until the beans are completely tender and the sauce is seasoned and thickened to your liking. I like saucy beans with a somewhat thickened broth seasoned to a wonderful flavor that isn’t salty but right on the edge.
Rancho Gordo, ranchogordo.com, free shipping over $50.00. The website warns that due to overwhelming demand there will be shipping delays. The current date of shipping as of publication is the end of May. — P.G.