January 22, 2017
Previously I’ve pointed out a big difference between this blog and professional cooking blogs – the professionals cook the big holiday meals weeks ahead of time allowing them to post the perfect turkey recipe before Thanksgiving when readers will be looking for them. I post my experience after the fact.
Another difference is the professionals will work through a recipe multiple times getting it just right before publishing. This blog is more of a let’s try this and see what happens and make adjustments as needed and post updates. An example of this approach are my posts on coney dogs. This is another of those posts. I’ve been working on perfecting my pinto bean recipe for years and finally hit the mark with pinto bean perfection. Then this summer while driving home from our cross country road trip we stopped at a little taqueria in La Grande, Oregon and had the best refried beans I can remember eating. I talked with the cook about it for a bit and found the secret was “a lot of love and a little bit of lard.” So this post is my stake in the ground for developing the best refried beans I can make. I’ve danced with the idea of using lard for a few months now and decided to just go for it. After all, rendered salt pork or bacon fat is just another method of getting pork fat – it just doesn’t have the baggage of that word – lard.
I jumped right in and did some research and found a couple of recipes to start from. Dad Cooks Dinner pressure cooks the beans but doesn’t include onion in the cooking. Serious Eats cooks the beans long and slow. Neither recipe used jalapeño – and I knew I wanted to use that. A couple of weeks ago I made black beans and rice and fell in love with the beans. I worked on melding the various recipes to come up with something I can call my own; you can find my result here. Be aware this was not perfection and I’ll be reworking it in the future – so come back for updates.
This recipe is pretty barebones and can easily be converted to a vegetarian dish – replace the lard with the fat of your choice.
Similar to the black beans recipe we cook the beans in a pressure cooker with half and onion, a bay leaf, some garlic and and aromatic – fresh oregano in this case because I couldn’t find epazote. It all goes in the pressure cooker (15 minutes in an electric pressure cooker if you soaked the beans overnight – 35 minutes if you didn’t). Using an electric pressure cooker is divine; I dumped in the ingredients, turned it on and we headed over to our neighbors for wine and appetizers. I set an alarm for myself and when we got back we had cooked beans!
I must say I was disappointed when the beans were done cooking – the broth was blah. That was because there was no salt in it. After the fact I read a Serious Eats article that said the old rule about not salting beans during cooking is hogwash. The takeaway – salt is fine; use 1 Tablespoon per quart of water in the soaking/brining and a bit in the cooking. The amount during cooking will vary depending on the other ingredients – if you are using store bought cooking broth instead of straight water, you’ll have plenty of salt. I recommend (you knew I would mention it!) making your own chicken broth so you’ll know what’s in it – and so you’ll have better tasting broth.
Regardless, I pressed on – you can always add a bit more salt but you can’t take it back out. The next step is to fish out the onion, garlic, bay leaf, and aromatic then drain the beans reserving the liquid. Heat the lard until shimmering and sauté the onion and jalapeño until the onion has softened then add the beans and cook for a couple of minutes before adding 1 cup of the reserved bean broth. Mash things up with a potato masher. The potato masher wasn’t getting it to my desired consistency so I poured the whole mixture into a big mixing bowl and used a stick immersion blender to get it where I wanted. Then I added it back to the skillet and continued to cook. You could also use a food processor (lots of cleanup) or just keep mashing by hand.
Because there was no salt used in cooking the beans, I used a lot at this step. Sorry, I didn’t measure, I just kept adding a pinch, stirring, and tasting as I went along.
At this point the beans were pretty good – not company ready, but serviceable. Tostadas would be the perfect meal for them. I fried a couple of corn tortillas in a little bit of oil, then slathered on the beans …
…and topped with cotija cheese.
Finally we cut up some tomato, lettuce, sliced pickled jalapeños then topped with sour cream and salsa. Dinner is served.
These were good but not perfect. Next time I’ll brine the beans and use some in the cooking – maybe 1/2 teaspoon. I may also substitute in 1 cup of chicken stock for a cup of water in the cooking step. That really worked for the black beans recipe. I may also use some cumin either in the bean cooking or in the frying step – once the onions are ready, I’ll bloom the spice for 30 seconds or so.
Rating: ★★★ I’m confident with a few changes we can add another star or two.