Beans in the Mexican Pantry
Ericka Sanchez is the creator and recipe developer at the award-winning www.NibblesandFeasts.com, a bilingual blog created to share traditional Mexican family recipes and modern dishes with a Latin twist. Here, she highlights her favorite ways to make quintessential bean dishes.
Beans: A Pantry Staple
If you peek into any Mexican kitchen, there’s a special place reserved for dry beans. Whether stored in large burlap sacks, or plastic bags, this staple has its own special location in the Mexican pantry. Beans have been around since pre-Hispanic Mexico and served as a base for daily meals. They were consumed ground up, processed into a paste or mixed with grains. On cold days, beans were milled into powder, and mixed with corn flour to create masa for tamales. The powder was also a thickener included in atole, a beloved milk-based Mexican drink sweetened with raw sugar and fruit — the perfect source of protein for warriors and travelers.
The most popular form of preparing beans was cooked by fire and water, and not much has changed today. We enjoy fresh Frijoles de la Olla — or beans in a pot — practically every day, as an accompaniment to almost every Mexican meal. Whether that meal is tacos, tostadas, fideo (Mexican noodle soup), huevos rancheros (fried eggs on a tortilla bed drizzled with red or green salsa) or chilaquiles (fried corn tortilla pieces topped with red or green salsa and cheese), just to name a few.
Frijoles de la Olla are considered the base of many Mexican bean dishes. A clay pot is preferred because the porosity of the clay decreases loss of steam during the cooking process and gives the cooked beans a distinct earthy flavor. When making this dish, pinto beans are most popular in central and northern Mexico, while frijoles negros, (black beans) are preferred in southern Mexico and the Yucatan Peninsula. Once the beans are cooked in a clay pot and seasoned with local herbs and spices such as fresh epazote leaves, dry bay leaves or serrano peppers, they’re topped with pico de gallo and regional cheeses such as cotija or queso fresco and Mexican cream or sour cream. Then, they’re served with corn tortillas or fresh bolillos (French bread) to scoop up and absorb the delicious bean broth. This Frijoles de la Olla recipe uses Camellia Brand Pinto Beans, onion, garlic and sea salt to create a versatile base dish that can be enjoyed as is, or used to make Frijoles Charros.
Once Frijoles de la Olla are cooked, they can be mashed, refried, and pureed to be transformed into many of the bean dishes we enjoy today. Often, cooks will make a pot and then add a variety of flavorful meats such as chorizo, beef franks, ham or bacon and top with chicharrones (pork cracklings) to create Frijoles Charros (cowboy beans). They’re often enjoyed alongside carne asada (grilled and sliced beef). This Frijoles Charros recipe uses Camellia brand Great Northern beans, along with hot dogs, chorizo, and bacon for great meaty flavor.
Some add in beer during the cooking process to create Frijoles Borrachos (drunken beans). Both frijoles charros and frijoles borrachos are standards at family gatherings, picnics, and cookouts. This Frijoles Borrachos recipe relies on Camellia Brand Pinto Beans, bacon, dark Mexican beer, and a Serrano pepper for its deep flavor.
Tex-Mex: What’s the Difference?
Tex-Mex — a combination of Northern Mexican and Texan cuisine, and not to be confused with Mexican food — does have its differences. It tends to include different cuts of beef, wheat flour, cheddar cheese, canned tomatoes and cumin, while Mexican food uses minimal beef, corn tortillas, low-fat white cheeses, fresh cilantro and epazote for its authenticity. Both pinto and black beans have made their way into popular Tex-Mex dishes we all enjoy, such as burritos, nachos, and chili con carne.
Beans have fused into cultural and culinary traditions in a variety of Latin cuisines. Rich in protein and vitamins such as B1 and B2, they continue to be one of the most popular foods consumed in Latin America. However, it’s undeniable that when a great bowl of beans is ready, what matters most is enjoying the taste of this versatile legume that has been around for centuries and cooked in so many delicious ways.