I love beans. I love ham and beans. I love baked beans on toast. I love charro beans. I love smoked turkey and beans. I love pasta and beans. I love wieners and beans. I love bacon and beans. And I especially like when those bean dishes are made, from scratch, with dried beans.J
I detest beans. I absolutely hate all of the dishes I just mentioned. Because there are so many beans. Because when I decide to make any of those dishes I have no idea which are the best beans to buy. Because I don’t know beans about beans.
Beans. In Mexico they’re one of the “three sisters”. Along with corn and squash, they’ve satisfied most of Mexico’s hunger for centuries. And, though rice has moved in on the sisters in the last few decades, beans are still an all-important food in my adopted country. In “Nuestro Mero Mole”, probably the best thing ever written about the history of Mexican cuisine, Jesus Flores y Escalante says that, in Mexico, you can find beans somewhere in 70% of all dishes.
Traditionally beans, corn and squash were all grown together in the same field. The corn stalks provided support for the beans’ vines. The squash provided ground cover to hold in warmth and moisture. And the greens from the vines returned nitrogen and other nutrients to the soil. In the campo, just five minutes from San Miguel de Allende, you’ll still see the three sisters supporting each other.
This is the point in the blog post where a lot of food writers would spend a few paragraphs talking about the nutritional value of beans. I prefer to tell you that they contain lots of protein, fibre and carbs and move on to info that’s more about buying beans and tasting beans
The scientific name for common beans is phaseolus vulgaris which led to the Catalán word fesol which led to the Spanish word frijol. Now, a little lesson in Mexican Spanish: If you’re shopping at a market, and are buying beans, do not ask for un kilo de frijoles. The correct request is un kilo de frijol. No matter how many beans you’re buying, the word frijol is used for both the singular and plural. But, like most language lessons, it comes with an exception. When beans are cooked, then they become frijoles.
There are two places you can buy beans in San Miguel de Allende. The supermarkets and the not so super markets. I’ve always rooted for underdogs so I favor the not so‘s. The San Juan de Dios Market. The Ignacio Ramirez Market. The weekly Mercado Municipale or, as we better know it, the Tuesday Market. It’s where the locals shop. It’s where the locals buy their beans. It’s where they pay about a third less for their beans. But it’s where one pink bean can look almost exactly like another pink bean and, without a tour guide, it’s like walking into a jungle wearing a blindfold.
After 15 years of plodding up and down the aisles of all of San Miguel de Allende’s markets, I’m still confused about which beans are which and which ones to buy for which recipe. But after all those years of saying to vendors, ”No, sólo estoy mirando” or, when beans didn’t have a sign, to ask “¿Qué tipo de frijol son eso?”, I have become a little more knowledgable and, finally, have enough confidence to share some of the information about the staggering number of beans I have found and sampled. Yes, I do get fanatical over these things. But you never know when some publisher’s going to call and offer a $10K advance for a bean book. Actually you do know. Never.
There are about 70 different varieties of beans in Mexico and the preferences are very much regional. I have narrowed the most common ones found in San Miguel de Allende down to seven. They have variations in size, color, texture, flavor, and the amount of cooking time but, if you blindfolded me, I doubt if I would be able to tell the difference between most of them. So, despite me recommending certain beans for certain dishes, many of those choices are based more on tradition than taste and I wouldn’t hesitate to substitute any of the following beans for one of the others in specific recipes.
The fresher the bean, the better the bean and, on almost any sign for beans, you’ll see the word nuevo. Does that mean that those beans are newer than ones that aren’t labeled nuevo? No. And is there a way to visually determine how old beans are? Not that I know of. I would rank choosing beans as almost as difficult as choosing a spouse so you might want to begin your journey at the same starting line by simply choosing the ones you think are the best looking.
Peruanos are a pale green-yellow bean that are easy to recognize because they are the most yellow of beans that you will find. They are medium to large in size and, despite their name, apparently originated in Mexico.
They are the most expensive bean you will find in the market due to their yields being less than the others yet, despite their price, they are the most commonly used bean in Mexico’s central highlands. You will see more, by far, of them on San Miguel’s supermarket shelves.
Peruanos are grown in the states of Nayarit, Sonora and Sinaloa. In the state of Jalisco, peruanos are the standard for refried beans.
Don Day’s Wife likes that they don’t get as mushy as other beans when cooked making them good for dishes like a bean salad. On the tongue they are very creamy and sweeter than most other beans.
You may also find peruanos under the name mayocoba or canario.
Pintos are beige with brown streaks and spots and probably get their name from their similarity to the mottled hide of pinto ponies. As attractive as the color variations are, they turn a uniform brown when cooked. Major growing areas are the states of Nayarit, Durango and Chihuahua.
Red kidney beans are impossible to find in central Mexico but pintos are in the kidney bean family and therefore make an excellent replacement. Use them in red beans and rice and in chile con carne with beans. They’re often mashed to make refried beans and are the most commonly found beans in a bean burrito.
Negros are the most easily recognized bean due to their distinctive shiny black color and the fact that they’re the smallest local bean. Though often grown in my neighboring state of Queretaro, they tend to be more popular in the south and in Veracruz than in central Mexico.
Due to their color, they work well visually in combination with other beans. They have one of the richest flavors of all beans and, in Cuba, are used often in soups. They are also known as turtle or turtle soup beans but I have never seen beans in turtle soup.
Their wonderful jet black color is lost somewhat after soaking and cooking so I would recommend that you still don’t soak negros even though they take a little longer than most beans to soften. Water that’s left after cooking (called pot liquor by legumaphiles) can be used to add a little color and flavor to poached eggs. And negros are the favorite of our housekeeper to accompany huevos rancheros.
Flor de Mayo
Both flor de mayo and flor de junio beans are beige with purple decorations. Books tell me that the marks on mayos are more spotted while junio’s marks are more like swirls but, if you’re not viewing them side by side, I’d challenge anyone to identify them.
Flor de mayos or f. mayo as you’ll sometimes see them labelled are native to Mexico, probably the state of Zacatecas, where they grow on a low bush. Their popularity, however, is almost nationwide.
According to elegantbeans.com, flor de mayo “tied with the scarlet runner bean for being the most outstanding bean in a blindfolded taste test by Santa Fe chefs. They described it as a mild smoky flavor with an unusual texture.”
Though three different vendors sell beans called ballos at San Miguel’s Tuesday Market, they are almost a complete mystery. There is, however, a Mexican bean called a bayo which is also not well known but may be exactly the same.
Bayos are a similar color to pintos without the mottling. They turn a little more pink and remain firmer when cooked.
Flor de Junio
Flor de junio or f. junio are the most popular beans in the state of Michoacan. They are extremely creamy, so much so that it’s hard to believe there is no dairy when you make frijoles de la olla out of them. That creaminess also makes them a popular choice for making charro beans.
There are a number of growers in the state of Guanajuato, making it another of San Miguel’s local beans. They are a very attractive beige with lilac/purple swirls.
Like flor de mayo, flor de junio don’t seem to last as long as other beans so I would only buy as much as you need for what you’re going to cook right away (even though they do look good displayed in glass jars).
Rosa de castilla
I’m guessing that rosa de castilla beans take their name from the Mexican actress popular in the sixties and seventies (or perhaps it’s the other way around).
They are probably the most local of beans to San Miguel de Allende with farms in neighboring towns, Celaya and Ocampo, being major growers.
All of the pink beans cook a little faster than the beige, black and yellow beans.
Should you clean your beans?
About the only good reason (OK, in addition to saving time) to use canned beans is you don’t have to clean them. But it’s absolutely worth it to use dried for that rich reward of improved taste and texture.
Cleaning is essential (I recently paid for a new crown on a molar) and it’s not the quickest or easiest thing to do. I spread them out on a baking pan and shuffle them around pulling out anything that looks broken, mis-shapen, off-colored, or, in any other way, doesn’t belong.
The only thing then left to do is rinse. Place them in a strainer and under a cold water tap, shaking them around so that any dust is washed away.
One more thing about cleaning: At markets, you will sometimes see bags of the exact same bean with two prices, usually two or three pesos more per kilo. I always thought the higher prices were for newer, fresher stock. I was wrong. The higher price is because those beans are limpiado mejor or cleaner according to one of the vendors.
To soak or not to soak?
There are two reasons to soak beans prior to cooking them. The first is to reduce cooking time. The second is to reduce flatulence.
There are people who will tell you that you should absolutely, definitely soak beans (usually overnight) before cooking. There are almost the same amount of people who will tell you that you should absolutely, definitely not soak beans before cooking because it has little or no affect on the amount of cooking time.
Don Day’s Wife used to soak. But when she found that most Mexicans don’t soak, she stopped. The reason? Soaking might reduce cooking time a little but it also reduces flavor a little. Even Diana Kennedy, the woman I’ve quoted more than any other person on this blog, in her book “The Cuisines of Mexico”, says “If you want the best-flavored beans, don’t soak them overnight, but start cooking in hot water”.
Beans, beans, the magical fruit. The more you eat, the more you toot!
The second reason to soak beans is because it supposedly reduces the chance of flatulence. Now I don’t deny that where there’s beans, there’s wind, but, after many decades of personal experience, I have found no difference in frequency or intensity from beans pre-soaked and those that go right on the stove.
I will admit to have read that there is scientific evidence that spending a few hours in water does break down the sugars and starches in beans (that’s where the breezes come from) but I’m from Missouri when it comes to scientific evidence. I would even rather trust food writers than scientists and one I trust much more than others, Russ Parsons, aka The California Cook, who writes very well for the “L.A. Times”, recently quoted an expert from the USDA on the matter:
“Whether to soak beans prior to cooking or not is simply a culinary question,” says Gregory Gray, who has been studying beans for 10 years at the U. S. Department of Agriculture’s Western Regional Research lab in Albany, Calif. “It may shorten the cooking time, but other than that, there’s no effect [on flatulence].”
Lastly, even though I’ve probably already told you more than you’ve ever wanted to know about beans, I’ll share recipes for two dishes so simple that even Don Day can make them.
How to cook dried beans
You need only a pot and a strainer to make the most basic of bean recipes. For frijoles de la olla or pot beans, I would heartily recommend you invest in an old fashioned clay pot. It may be my imagination running wild, but I will swear that the clay improves the flavor. And yes, you can place a clay olla directly on a gas burner.
And yes, if you’re Don Day’s Wife, you can even use one to store utensils. I also swear that metal pots impart a metallic taste (though science says I’m wrong) to certain foods and one of those foods is, certainly, beans.
A pot of beans on the stove or in the refrigerator ready to go on the stove is almost a tradition in Mexican homes. It can be simply beans and water and, perhaps, some salt or it can include a whole host of ingredients.
My suggestion is to make enough to have an adequate quantity for three or four different meals. I also suggest you keep it simple, adding only a small amount of onion and garlic. You can enhance the beans later by adding cumin, tomatoes, maple syrup, chiles, or whatever your imagination or a recipe calls for.
Ingredients (this makes lots but they will last for a couple of weeks in a refrigerator or you can freeze them):
2 kilo dried beans (any of the seven varieties listed above will work; my first and second choices would be peruano or flor de mayo).
1 medium size onion, finely chopped.
8 cloves of garlic, roughly chopped.
A tablespoon of vegetable oil (to reduce foam and potential boil over).
Water to cover plus an extra 2 inches in the pot (Don Day’s Wife likes two parts water to one part chicken stock as an alternative).
Salt to taste (sea salt recommended and for my tastebuds about four level teaspoons).
Mexicans will often add a few fresh epazote leaves but I really can’t taste any difference when they do.
Simply put all of the ingredients except the salt (it slows cooking time) in the pot and simmer until the beans are soft and almost double in size. Check them regularly to ensure there is still a sufficient amount of liquid and add a cup or two more of water if required. Cooking time can be anywhere between 45 and 180 minutes depending on the type of beans and the altitude (beans take much longer to cook in San Miguel). I suggest checking them every 20 minutes and giving them a stir when you do to make sure they’re not sticking to the pot; add a cup more of water if they are. When squeezed between finger and thumb, the beans should still have a little bit of give, be tender, but not mushy. Add the salt near the end of cooking.
How to make frijoles refritos
I’ll start this section with some more bean trivia: Frijoles refritos does not mean ‘refried’ beans. Mexican Spanish often uses the prefix ‘re’ to describe something that is especially good. Rebueno translates as really, really good. Refrito translates as well-fried.
Check out the internet for refried beans recipes and you will find pages of them, almost all of them different, particularly in what ingredients, other than beans, are included. This is Don Day’s Wife’s recommended recipe.
Ingredients (serves four as a side dish):
3 cups recently-cooked frijoles as per the preceding recipe (use any of the seven beans I described; pintos are a popular choice).
1 chipotle chile and two level tablespoons of juice from a can of chipotle chiles in adobo sauce.
2 level tablespoons of lard (called manteca in Spanish) or, even better, bacon fat if you’re one of the people who wisely always saves it in a cup in the refrigerator.
Bean cooking liquid.
Melt the lard in a small frying pan.
Chop the chiles finely and stir them and the adobo sauce into the lard.
Add the beans and a small amount of their liquid and stir them with the chile mixture.
When the beans begin to simmer, press them down with a potato masher (a wooden spoon will also work but not as well) to the desired consistency. If she’s using peruano beans with less “give”, Don Day’s Wife uses her immersion blender. I like my frijitos rellenos a little lumpy. If you like them perfectly smooth, you may need to add more of the bean liquid.
If you’ve never had well-fried beans with a steak, try these. Not quite…but…almost as good as a baked russet potato.
The Tuesday Market is located in San Miguel de Allende, Guanuajuato, Mexico.