A Perfect Pot of Beans

Some things are just meant to be simple, delicious and evocative.  My earliest memories of food and cooking always have the gorgeous aroma of beans simmering on my grandmother’s stove.  She made a fresh pot almost every day and the smell is woven into all my memories of her, the house with the creaky wooden floors and the smells of her flowers.

Every time I make a pot, it is like she is right back front and center, larger than life with her gentle little hands, showing me how to pat a tortilla, measure something out for baking, how to chop finely, how to pinch up the sides of a sope and a million other life lessons.  I miss her as keenly over 20 years since she’s been gone from this world as the day I lost her, but the scent of beans cooking in the pot always makes me feel her presence and it comforts me.
Beans seem like simple fare, maybe even bothersome or peasant food to some but to me they are necessary.  They go with just about any meal, are loaded with nutrients, are economical, versatile and filling and I couldn’t imagine life without them.  My favorite though is just out of the pot topped with chopped onion, tomato and cilantro.  It’s like a soup, absolutely delicious and with a freshly made tortilla dipped in, pure ecstasy.

To my mind, nothing is better than that first bowl of beans fresh out of a clay pot before they get re-fried or used for other things like tostadas, burritos, etc.  I still love them however they are cooked, but that first bowl of soupy pinto beans with the bright Mexican flag colors is just special.

I often get asked, “how do your beans come out so good?” or “what did you do to make them so good?” and it always surprises me, because to me beans are beans and no work at all.  I do remember my mother couldn’t make a pot to save her life.  We’d come home from school to the smell of burnt beans permeating the house and think, “Jeez, mom forgot to put water in the beans again.”  That never happened at Grandma’s house.  When I go over the steps in my head to my Grandma Lupe’s perfect pot of beans, its almost zen-like to me.  Maybe other Mexican cooks have different ways of preparing them but I only know hers and they’re always, always perfect so I thought I’d share the steps.

My grandmother never used just pinto beans.  She had this beautiful, big acrylic container my Uncle Adam had made for her that was filled with a mixture of large white beans, kidney beans, pintos, small lima beans, navy beans and pink beans.  The varying colors and sizes were beautiful and to me as a child, like little gems in a treasure box.  I loved sticking my hands into that clear container and picking up handfuls and letting them stream back in.

First step to a pot of good beans is cleaning them.  This is where the zen comes in.  My grandmother would pile in front of me little hills of beans and my job was to carefully inspect each one.  Broken ones, little dirt rocks and ones with the skins peeling were swiftly scooted off into a discard pile.  Good ones went into the keep pile.  I always found it very soothing to sort the beans and still do.

Once you’re done sorting the beans, put the good ones into a colander and wash them throughoughly in warm water then set aside.

In a large pot* fill just about an inch below the rim with cool water and bring to a boil.

Once you have the water at a rolling boil, add salt (no measurements here – depends on taste and how much you are making), two cloves of garlic and one golden onion, peeled and quartered.

Next add the beans and lower the flame/heat to very low.  Cover with a tight fitting lid and let simmer (no peeking) for three hours.  You do need to keep adding boiling water every so often to keep the water level an inch from the rim.  Don’t forget to put water in the beans!!  My grandma always kept a small pot simmering on the back burner so she could add in water and keep the temp the same.

One thing I notice is if you want nice, pink beans you limit the lid lifting.  One of my friends is a compulsive lid-lifter and her beans, while they are delicious come out very dark.  Some weird chemical reaction (oxidation?) happens when you lift the lid.  I’ve also found that people who soak their beans before cooking them also get the dark thing going on.  I am not a fan of soaking them.  Why bother when you can put a pot on in the morning and have delicious beans in the afternoon?

Ok – so everyone is gonna ask but, but, but Gina you didn’t give us measurements and we don’t know how many beans to put in so I’ll attempt to gauge the amount I put in this morning. I’m using a large soup pot (stainless steel because my olla broke and I have to go back to Mexico and buy another one because I’m so not buying an olla from here but you can that’s just me) and it holds 18 cups of water just an inch below the rim, to those 18 cups I put in about 4 cups of beans.  Salt is to taste so no measurement there.  I start with about hmm three tablespoons and go from there.

So that’s it my grandmother’s secret for a perfect pot of beans.  Love, care and some patience.

*When I was growing up, beans were cooked in a clay olla or pot.  Nowadays, there is a concern with the lead content in Mexican ollas so I won’t tell you to use one even though I do.  I love the flavor my olla imparts to the beans.  If you want to use a traditional clay olla, please find one that is lead-free.

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