The Global Chef: Beans, not bread, the staff of life for Mexicans

A humanitarian aid group, operating with the Pima County, Arizona Medical Examiners Office, reported that there were remains of 2,816 people near the Arizona-Mexico border from 2000 to 2017. This inspired a retired pastor and group of volunteers from Tucson to organize “No More Deaths,” a humanitarian aid group to provide medical care and water to these anxious, exhausted and starving people.

The group also provided beans.

In European cultures bread may be the staff of life but in Mexico, beans take this honor. Beans (frijoles) are an essential part of Mexican cuisine — beloved by rich and poor — and served at every meal. Black and pinto beans are most associated with Mexican cooking, but dried beans come in a delightful variety of flavors, shapes, and colors: black or purple-mottled, deep or pale yellow, pink, mottled-pink, brown, and white. Pinto beans are predominant in north, pale yellow peruanos and pale purple flor de mayo in central Mexico, while black beans are the favorite south of Mexico City. Prized fresh shell beans (frijoles nuevos) arrive at the market still in their pods.

Mexican cooks rarely soak dried beans. Soaking speeds up cooking time and improves texture, but doesn‘t make much difference for digestibility. Start with small amounts of beans and gradually up the amount. If you eat beans daily as Mexicans do they will become easier to digest.

Since beans absorb water through the small black spot on their sides, they can burst if cooked too quickly. Traditional Mexican cooks simmer beans slowly and long in a clay pot (de olla) with onion, lard and salt. Modern homes use a pressure cooker to save time. Black beans additionally simmer with the earthy herb epazote. Contrary to what some cooks believe, salt does not toughen beans (for soaking or cooking), rather the opposite: it tenderizes them, especially in hard water. However, dry beans cooked with tomatoes will toughen beyond redemption.

In the Yucatan, cooks prepare beans (frijol colado) with three traditional textures according to their intended use: aguado (watery), espeso (thick), and seco (dry). The cooking time and the amount of cooking liquid, water or chicken stock added to beans when they are puréed and strained determines their texture. “Aguado” is served in a small bowl as an accompaniment to a meal, and eaten either as soup or drizzled onto meats or tacos. “Espeso” is used for fillings and toppings for tostadas or panuchos (puffed, stuffed tortillas). “Seco” is used for the Yucatecan version of refried beans, as an accompaniment to a meal.

When you dig into your next bowl of beans, please remember to thank the skillful Mexican culture that developed and tended to them and the many other foods we consider essential like vanilla, chocolate, tomatoes, chilies, corn and squash. Without them our culinary world would be much poorer.

Recently the Unitarian Universalists Service Committee condemned a “shameful raid” on a migrant aid camp in the desert, which included dumping water and destroying beans. The distressing raid violates international humanitarian law and International Red Cross standards that prohibit government interference with aid centers. Sadly, “No More Deaths” volunteers are now facing charges for their humanitarian efforts. 

Well-Fried Pinto Beans (Frijoles Refritos)

Chef, author and restaurateur Rick Bayless emphasizes that frijoles refritos does not translate from Spanish to “beans fried again.” Rather, it translates as coarse or smooth beans “well-fried or intensely-fried.”

Yields 7 to 8 cups, 6 to 8 servings

1 pound dried pinto beans, about 2-1/2 cups

4 tablespoons pork lard or olive oil, or a mixture

2 cups peeled and finely diced white onion

Optional: 1 tablespoon peeled and minced garlic

Hot, cooked rice and warm tortillas

Pick through beans for stones or mold, rinse well and drain. Pour beans into a heavy 4- to 6-quart saucepan and cover with 2 to 2-1/2 quarts cold water and, for flavor and tenderness, 1 tablespoon kosher salt. Bring to a boil. (Soaking prevents beans from bursting, but does rob them of flavor—and, in the case of black beans, color.) Immediately lower heat to a simmer. Beans break if cooked on high heat.

Cover or partially cover the pot and simmer beans until tender, 2 to 3 hours depending on the age of the beans—older beans need longer cooking. Test beans by tasting one—it should feel creamy and taste full-flavored. Season beans with salt if necessary, and simmer until completely soft. (Beans will keep refrigerated up to 5 to 7 days.) Drain and reserve broth.

In a heavy 12-inch skillet or 6-quart Dutch oven over medium heat, add lard or oil. When hot, stir in onion and cook until soft and golden, 5 to 7 minutes. Stir in optional garlic and cook 1 minute. Stir half the beans into onions, and mash them with 2 cups bean cooking broth. Add remaining beans and mash to a coarse purée the consistency of chunky mashed potatoes. Season beans with salt and add more liquid if necessary. When beans sizzle around the edges and begin to dry, remove from heat. Adjust consistency from thick to very loose, as desired, by either cooking longer or adding more bean broth.

To Serve: Pile beans into serving dish and serve hot with rice and tortillas.

“Dirty” Black Beans From the Yucatan (Frijoles a la Huacha)

It‘s traditional to add a few sliced mint leaves to these beans before serving. In the southern state of Veracruz, well-fried black beans are seasoned with toasted, crumbled Mexican avocado leaves.

Yields 7 to 8 cups, 6 to 8 servings

1 pound black turtle beans, about 2-1/2 cups

1/4 cup pork lard or olive oil

1 cup peeled and finely diced white onion

1 large jalapeño chili, about 2 tablespoons stemmed, seeded and finely diced

Hot, cooked rice and warm tortillas

Cook beans as directed in recipe above. Drain beans, and reserve cooking broth. Mash beans by hand in bowl or purée in batches in blender until smooth, adding a total of 1-1/2 to 2 cups cooking broth as necessary. Pour bean purée into bowl and set aside.

In a deep, heavy 12-inch skillet over medium heat, add lard or oil. When hot, stir in onion and chili, and cook until soft, 5 to 7 minutes. Pour in mashed beans or bean purée, and lower heat. Simmer beans until thickened, 5 to 10 minutes. Season beans with salt, to taste. Adjust consistency from thick to very loose, as desired, by either cooking longer or adding more bean broth.

To Serve: Ladle beans onto plates. Serve with rice and tortillas.


*Leave half the beans whole.

*Smooth Yucatan Beans: After puréeing beans, push through a strainer to remove skin.

*Season beans at the end with 1/4 cup packed finely sliced cilantro.

Nancy Krcek Allen has been a chef-educator for more than 25 years and has taught professional and recreational classes in California, New York City and Michigan. Her culinary textbook is called “Discovering Global Cuisines."