Frijoles De Olla (Pot beans)
Lots of cooking dogmas and various disagreements apply whever you are dealing with dried beans - for example whether it is necessary to soak the bean, whether you should quick soak them by bringing to a boil first, whether they should be soaked overnight and whether the soaking liquid should be discarded, whether salt should be added and when you should add it.
I cook beans quite a bit and have come up with a system that works pretty well for me and I given up worrying and obsessing about the contradictory advice I read every time a pick up a cookbook with a bean recipe.
Personally I like to soak the beans overnight. While boiling first shortens the soaking time somewhat, I am at this stage, resigned to the fact that cooking dried beans is a process that will never be instant. Neither do I like to boil without soaking. The beans take much longer to cook this way, and that seems to me an awful waste of energy that can easily be remedied by 5 minues of preperation the night before.
The Frijoles de Olla is a basic recipe of beans (I use black beans, pinto beans or a combination of both) in a light broth. it is a nice dish in its own right but it also forms the basis for refried beans.
Lard and Espazote
There are a couple of slightly unusual additions to the Frijoles de Olla. The first Lard, is a fairly familiar, if not often used ingredient in European cooking, however it finds it's way into Mexican cooking quite a bit - particulary in the cooking of Tamales. A tablespoon of lard is added the beans as they are simmered - it gives a velvety feel to the resulting broth, it also gives the meaty tast that is achieved in European cooking by the addition of bacon or pancetta.
The second addition is Espazote. This was unfamiliar to me before I cam here. I has an odd medicinal taste, it is, to me, reminiscnt of the emanel paints I used as a kid to paint Airfix models.
Beyond that the recipe is pretty simple, add the soaked beans and the soaking water to a large pot, add water untill the beans are covered by a coupld of inches (this is more than would be added in a European dish, however what you are looking for is to be left with a light bean broth rather than cooking off all the liquid). Add about halfo of a chopped onion, a tablespoon of lard and I use a few sprigs of the dried espazote. I also add a crushed clove of garlic even though it does not seem to be a standard addition in any of the mexican recipes I have seen. Don't add any salt at this stage.
Bring the beans to a boil, reduce the seat and simmer until they are tender. The length of time depends on a number of factors - the age of the beans, how long they were soaked, even the altitude is you want to get picky - however you should allow for a couple of hours simmering.
Salt causes the skins to tighten so when it is added in the process is important, that is also whay it is not added untill well into the cooking process. If the beans are being used in a salad then it is best to salt the pot before the beans are completely tender to allow the beans hold their shape in the salad. In the case of frijoles de olla, where I am likely to be proceeding to make refried beans, I never add salt until the beans are completely tender.
Thes beans make a nice lunch. I have seen people a work here eat something very similar to this with tortillas. I doubt my tortilla skills are up to eating something so liquid with a tortilla, but it does make a nice soup.
The beans can also be mased and fried. Again lard is used, however I have also used butter or olive oil. Butter gives pretty similar results to the lard, the olive oil version will taste slightly different.
Cooking refried beans makes me appreciate the Mexican fascination for non stick cookware, which I am generally not a fan of, however the idea of cleaning non stick cookware after a batch of refried beans has caught in it is not something I thnk I would enjoy.
The procedure is to heat the lard, add half the quantity of beans and the same quantity of broth (say a 1/2 cup of each). As the beans heat up begin mashing them into the broth to create a loose paste. At this point add the remainider of the beans and the same amount of the broth and mash these into the mixture. There is a specfic mexican implement to do this however a potato masher or the back of a flat ladle would do fine too.
Once everything has been mashed together continue cooking and scraping for the bottom of the pan to prevent catching. As the mixture cooks and the water evaporates it will gradually form a coherent mass. at this point you it's ready.
The only addition I like to make is to occasionally add some smoked paprika which adds some of the smokyness you expect in refied beans.