I’ve never been a bean snob. I think canned beans are incredibly convenient and consistently good. For most recipes that use beans, good is good enough. But when beans need to stand on their own, you really can’t beat dried beans on quality, and especially not on price.
There’s a Mexican restaurant chain in my region that serves great frijoles de la olla. It’s such a welcome break from the [sub]standard refried beans and rice sides that are so prevalent at strip mall Mexican joints. This restaurant’s beans are so good that they serve tortilla chips with bean dip in lieu of salsa. I decided to experiment with making frijoles de la olla at home, and I’ve pretty much nailed it.
Frijoles de la Olla
- 1 pound dried pinto beans
- enough water to cover beans by one inch
- 1/4 pound salt pork or bacon
- 1 large onion, quartered
- 2 clove garlic, peeled and cracked
- 1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
- salt and pepper to taste
As with most peasant dishes, the ingredients are pretty simple. You need to pick through the beans for stones and broken pieces. Discard any you find. After that, pour the beans into a colander and rinse them clean. Next, pour the beans into a 4 quart or larger dutch oven and add enough water to cover by one inch. Bring the pot to a boil and then immediately reduce it to a low simmer. Add all of the other ingredients except for the salt and simmer for 2 hours with the lid slightly open to allow a little steam to escape. Stir occasionally to make sure the beans don’t stick to the bottom and burn.
After two hours, the beans should be pretty soft on the outside, but still al dente in the center. At this point, you should remove the cilantro before it disintegrates. Add the salt, take the lid off the pot, and cook for another 1–2 hours. The water should reduce and thicken into a flavorful broth. You might have to add a little more water if too much evaporates.
When the beans are cooked to desired firmness (they should be soft throughout, but not quite falling apart), remove the onion and the garlic. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
The beans can be eaten now, but they’ll taste better after they’ve cooled for a few hours. They do not have to be served hot. Serve with a fair helping of the broth and top with whatever you like: salsa, sour cream, chives, cheese, etc.
I like to mix a little ricotta cheese into the pot of beans after it’s finished cooking (if I have some in the fridge). I just stir until it’s evenly incorporated and it vanishes into the mix. It adds a creamy taste and texture that really makes the beans taste great, but no one can really pinpoint why they taste so good. This is obviously inauthentic, but I think it tastes better than the traditional recipe.
To make bean dip, just blend the beans with a tiny bit of water, oil, or broth to thin it a bit. Top with shredded cheese melted under the broiler and serve with tortilla chips.
I like to make these beans when I make a batch of pork or chicken carnitas. The wife really loves the bean dip, and we use the refried beans and shredded meat to make Taco Bell-style Mexican pizzas. We’re proud gringos.